For many of us the words “poverty” and “homelessness” conjure up images from so-called third world countries: half-naked skeletal children, women carrying heavy water pots on their heads, droughts, floods, wars, and refugee camps. It may come as a surprise to some that many people in developed countries also suffer from poverty and homelessness. Many women and children are affected here in the UK, and the situation is worsening due to government funding cuts.
Shaz Munir is one of the directors of Amirah Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation that supports Muslim sisters suffering from various afflictions in their lives. Amirah was set up by Shaz and two others sisters, Laila and Hannah, after encountering a number of sisters who were homeless, suffering from domestic abuse, financial hardships or were simply isolated from the community with little support. Despite living in the same city and praying in the same masjid, Shaz, Laila and Hannah did not know each other, but Shaz strongly believes that Allah (SWT) brought them together for the sole purpose of creating Amirah: “None of us set out to build Amirah Foundation – Allah gave it to us.”
Many people are surprised when they hear about Amirah’s work; it is difficult for them to comprehend that women all over the UK sleep rough, that women are actually turned away from refuges and that not everyone has access to benefits, explains Shaz. As many as 230 women a day are turned away from refuges due to funding cuts. The media leads us to believe that everybody has access to benefits, but the reality is that if Child Benefit is in the father’s name, the mother cannot access it without the father’s consent. A woman fleeing her abusive husband with her children would be deprived of those benefits and unable to feed her children. Women on spousal visas also have no access to these benefits and, instead of supporting them, social services often advises these women to put their children into foster care and arranges a flight back to their home countries for them.
“We are told that to save one life is equal to saving all of humanity, and that we should not sleep whilst our neighbour is hungry.”
In the UK two women are killed by an abusive partner every week. Shaz relates a story about a revert sister with six children still awaiting British citizenship who wished to leave her abusive husband who had threatened to kill her. The sister was turned away from refuges and did not receive support from the police as she had no access to benefits. After months of despair, the sister gave in, waiting for the day that he would take her life and end her suffering. Amirah was able to help her by setting up a home for her, working late into the night to make sure that she and her children had everything they required. The six children had lived in a two bedroom flat their whole lives – imagine their delight discovering their new home had a garden for them to play in! After settling the family into their home, Amirah initiated their social services, which included facilitated advocacy and clearing the sister’s citizenship issue to allow her to receive benefits, as well as securing funds from zakat-collecting bodies, counselling, madrassa fees, martial arts classes to help children deal with aggression and finding placement in schools.
Another issue that the Amirah team encounter is how vulnerable women often fall prey to pimps and drug dealers who take advantage of women desperate to feed themselves and their children. The taboo nature of prostitution and transactional sexual relations within Muslim communities means that Muslims turn a blind eye and fail to help these desperate sisters. One such example is of a woman who had been brought into the UK from Greece by a man who offered to pay her a salary, provide accommodation and later expected her to have sex with him. The sister was too young and naïve to understand that she was being groomed. The Amirah team moved her out of the hotel and into a home with other single sisters, helped her get a halal full-time job, and supported her until she was able to provide for herself. Now she is financially and spiritually settled with plenty of support from the sisters around her.
What makes Amirah different from other refuges is that they do not believe in temporary accommodation. The Amirah Foundation believes that temporary shelter only delays the healing process and recovery of these sisters who are likely to continue worrying about their future and only want to be self-sufficient. Living with other women and children also adds to the sisters’ stress. Amirah sets up a permanent, secure home for these sisters from the start, providing everything from food to furniture to bedding to kitchen utensils. Once they are settled into their own home, they begin the social support part of their service such as dealing with social services, undertaking Multi-Agency Risk Assessment Conference (MARAC ), liaising with schools, police and children’s services, encouraging self-sufficiency by finding employment, and advising sisters to utilise all their talents and skills to help themselves, such as making and selling arts and crafts. Amirah also offers coffee mornings for sisters needing extra support and food parcels for those who cannot afford it.
“The road from where we started almost two years ago to where we are now has not been easy and has been paved with many trials and tribulations,” Shaz relates. “We console ourselves with reminders of how Allah (SWT) tests those who embark on doing something that is pleasing to Him, and remind ourselves of why there is such a need for Amirah Foundation.” Last Ramadan, Amirah helped raise £400,000 after forging a partnership with another charitable organisation but were suddenly left penniless when that organisation decided to build their own shelter without Amirah’s assistance. This was a huge financial blow for Amirah: Shaz and Hannah both found themselves homeless and at the same level of poverty as the sisters they were trying to help. Rather than being deterred, this setback only served to increase their perseverance as the experience of being homeless showed them why this work was so important. This was not just a trial, but a blessing from Allah (SWT). After receiving a generous donation from Hanesden Islamic Centre (HICC), Shaz, Hannah, and Laila were finally able to begin their work. Since then, Amirah foundation has been able to support 65 homeless and destitute sisters, madrassas have been set up for new Muslimahs and their children, they have helped sisters get full-time halal employment and hold a bazaar every six weeks where sisters are able to sell jewellery, art and clothes that they have made.
Amirah Foundation receives direct referrals from all over the country, as well as from social services, victim support and other larger housing associations because Amirah do not turn anyone away. They accepted non-Muslims as they believe it is a great opportunity for dawah. “Each day women come to us with broken lives,” Shaz tells SISTERS, “women who had accepted death and were just waiting for it to happen. Nothing makes my heart more content when, just a few weeks later, I see these same women and their children, colour in their cheeks, smiles on their faces and they are happy.”
Amirah is a small organisation that has taken on a huge amount of work. Their biggest challenge is fundraising as the organisation that goes into it requires a lot of time, effort and even money. Fundraising is essential for Amirah, not only for raising funds, but also to spread awareness of their services and give access to sisters who might otherwise be unable to reach them. Fundraising is a major part of Amirah and even the directors themselves have suffered from financial hardships in their personal lives because of the challenges they have faced. When Shaz made a decision to take on full-time employment and reduce her hours at Amirah in order to better her financial situation, she was left in tears when she received a phonecall regarding the worsened suffering of a sister soon after making this decision. It was a reminder from Allah (SWT) why her time and work was needed at Amirah, despite the long hours and the financial and emotional stress.
“We are exhausted and our small team is pushed to the limits; yet each day we see that our work is greatly needed as a life line. We are told that to save one life is equal to saving all of humanity, and that we should not sleep whilst our neighbour is hungry. The reality is that we always have just two months worth of running costs, yet each month our outputs are increased and we grow in the work we deliver. We believe that this is Allah’s project that He entrusted to us, we must have sabr and trust in Allah SWT: He will surely provide the means for us to continue to help the vulnerable amongst His creation here in the UK.”
Originally published in SISTERS magazine, November 2012