By Tayeba Hussain

Black Muslim Representation Matters

Donna Neil-Demir, RN, Zakat Foundation of America’s health advisor, high-fives a peer at a 2012 Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN) event in Chicago called “Takin’ It to the Streets.” | Zakat Foundation of America photo
Donna Neil-Demir, RN, Zakat Foundation of America’s health advisor, high-fives a peer at a 2012 Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN) event in Chicago called “Takin’ It to the Streets.” | Zakat Foundation of America photo

The Black community has constantly been underrepresented when it comes to getting adequate health care in the United States.

Donna Neil-Demir, who is a Black Muslim nurse and Health Advisor at Zakat Foundation of America, has seen this racial divide within the health care sector growing up and throughout her years of service at the foundation. She has also seen a racial divide among her own people.

Muslims who are Black experience the same systemic racism that non-Muslim Black Americans face in their day-to-day lives, according to a study done by ISPU. African Americans still experience illness and infirmity at high rates, and because of this they have a lower life expectancy than other ethnic groups, according to an article in The Century Foundation

The pandemic has also shown how people of color are more likely to die from the coronavirus due to the lack of proper care and treatment. African Americans continue to get infected and die from COVID-19 at rates more than 1.5 times their share of the population, according to data analyzed by NPR. As a Black woman, Neil-Demir easily saw the need to help serve Black and other minority communities. In an analysis done by Frederick Zimmerman, a professor at UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, the correlation between affluent communities versus lower income communities play a huge role on health equity. The richer tend to have better health because they can afford to have better health. 

“When Mr. Demir and I started the Zakat Foundation of America over 20 years ago, we knew we wanted to use Zakat in the way Allah, subhanahu wa ta’ala, wanted it to be used, which is to help the impoverished and the needy,” Neil-Demir said. 

She explained how the need for Zakat is universal, which is why the U.S.-based humanitarian organization prides itself on that need for diversity. She talked about how Zakat Foundation of America was started because they knew they wanted to use the power of Zakat to help minority communities feel represented. 

“To see someone give to someone who doesn’t look the same as you, and doesn’t want anything in return, is really significant,” Neil-Demir said.

She explained how 20 years ago, no other Muslim humanitarian organization was doing what Zakat Foundation of America was doing, which was the concept of using Zakat in America. She talked about how most immigrants who lived in America would send their Zakat to their home countries, but the Zakat Foundation changed that notion completely. More people were giving their Zakat through the foundation, and it was not just Muslims donating to the causes.

Donna Neil-Demir (center), RN and Zakat Foundation of America’s health advisor has a discussion with Executive Director Halil Demir (right) and a volunteer (left) at a Juneteenth distribution in Chicago in 2020. | Zakat Foundation of America photo
Donna Neil-Demir (center), RN and Zakat Foundation of America’s health advisor has a discussion with Executive Director Halil Demir (right) and a volunteer (left) at a Juneteenth distribution in Chicago in 2020. | Zakat Foundation of America photo

“The fact that I’ve spent the last 45 years of my life dealing head on with racism, first as a Black woman, and then as a Muslim — apparently to anyone who isn't Black, I don’t look Black,” Neil-Demir said, as she explained how she knew exactly how it felt to be singled out and discriminated against. She added that she got hijab-shamed several times because other Muslims would tell her she wasn’t wearing her hijab the “correct way.”

Health Advisor Donna Neil-Demir, RN, on a 2016 field visit to Rwanda, where she is seen with orphans and vulnerable children. Such children receive health care as part of their enrollment in Zakat Foundation of America’s orphan sponsorship program. | Zakat Foundation of America
Health Advisor Donna Neil-Demir, RN, on a 2016 field visit to Rwanda, where she is seen with orphans and vulnerable children. Such children receive health care as part of their enrollment in Zakat Foundation of America’s orphan sponsorship program. | Zakat Foundation of America

Neil-Demir has been leading the organization’s COVID-19 relief efforts, distributing PPE to hospitals during the peak of the pandemic, specifically in underrepresented areas. 

“I already knew which hospitals were underserved and impoverished,” Neil-Demir said. “I’m a nurse, but even if I wasn’t a nurse, I would have known which hospitals needed attention.”

She talked about how malnourishment is actually huge in America but not talked about us much. 

“When I made that list of hospitals, I wanted to help distribute the PPE. I made sure I included those forgotten hospitals first,” she said, explaining that the bigger hospitals can easily sustain themselves because they already have access to money and grants.

As a first step in conquering these racial disparities, the Muslim community as a whole can work on putting internal biases aside.

“In order for us to move through biases, we have to challenge ourselves to understand our religion,” Neil-Demir said. “We have to take a hardcore look at ourselves and realize we got it wrong as Muslims. We have everything in Islam that talks against discrimination and racism.”