Rebuilding a Chicago neighborhood by forging connections to the Muslim community

Rebuilding a Chicago neighborhood by forging connections to the Muslim community


HARI SREENIVASAN: But first: The South Side
of Chicago has long been plagued with some of the highest crime rates in the nation,
but one man is trying to transform this area by focusing on the everyday needs and the
health of those who live there. Jeffrey Brown has our story. JEFFREY BROWN: Along this stretch on Chicago’s
South Side, Rami Nashashibi is a familiar face. He’s the founder of the nonprofit IMAN, the
Inner-City Muslim Action Network. And for more than 20 years, he’s focused on
the root problems these neighborhoods face. RAMI NASHASHIBI, Founder, Inner-City Muslim
Action Network: So, violence, poverty, lack of real meaningful job opportunities, lots
of young people with very few meaningful trajectories. This set of blocks was ravaged by the foreclosure
crisis. JEFFREY BROWN: Nashashibi grew up the son
of a Jordanian diplomat. He first came to the U.S. for college, and
later got a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Chicago. He started IMAN in 1997 to help bridge divides
he saw here between Muslim immigrants and African-Americans. The organization has grown ever since, and
now has an annual budget of nearly $4 million, with funding from a mix of grants and private
donations. This is social activism, he says, grounded
in faith. RAMI NASHASHIBI: We have been unapologetically
rooted in the values and spiritual tradition that comes from the Muslim community, while,
at the same time, acknowledging that so much of that is also very universal. JEFFREY BROWN: One major focus of the organization
now, neighborhood corner stores, the small shops that many here rely on, in the absence
of supermarkets in these neighborhoods, but also places that have historically generated
tensions between the Arab immigrants who own them, and their African-Americans customers. IMAN is trying to change that. RAMI NASHASHIBI: That corner store doesn’t
have to be what many corner stores in Chicago are, often a place of death, not a spot that
you really want to go into, that we could radically re-imagine it. JEFFREY BROWN: At the Morgan Mini Mart in
Englewood, store owner Sami Deffala, who immigrated from Palestine, is one of 60 store owners
in the area who have signed onto IMAN’s corner store campaign. SAMI DEFFALA, Business Owner: We have been
in the neighborhood for 27 years. JEFFREY BROWN: The idea is to bring everyone
together around a common need: fresh and more healthy food. SAMI DEFFALA: We have stepped it up. With their help, we have been able to acquire
fruits and vegetables that are subsidized, a lot lower price, and, in turn, we sell them
at a lot lower price. So, that way, it’s a win-win, right? JEFFREY BROWN: And it’s much needed, says
IMAN’s Shamar Hemphill. SHAMAR HEMPHILL, Inner-City Muslim Action
Network: You know, it’s a war on nutrition that’s constantly killing a lot of communities. Black men die at higher rates, contributed
to their diet, right? How you going to change anything in your neighborhood
if you really can’t start with the place that really sustains the neighborhood? And that’s the food. JEFFREY BROWN: Sami Deffala says, in the process,
a new trust has emerged between him and his customers. SAMI DEFFALA: People talk. People in the community talk. Hey, listen, that guy is a good guy there,
you know? You don’t want to go in there and do him any
harm or any wrong. JEFFREY BROWN: Just a few blocks away, IMAN
also operates a free health clinic. Here, physician’s assistant Muna Odeh, whose
family immigrated from Palestine, treats many like 58-year-old Jerome Reynolds, a diabetic
without insurance. MUNA ODEH, Physician’s Assistant: People who
are underserved and often forgotten. And a lot of times, they feel that they are
not in control of their situation, and not in control of their health, because of their
limited access to funds and insurance and things like that. JEFFREY BROWN: Here, too, there’s an emphasis
on making better food choices. And there’s another benefit to this interaction,
Muna Odeh says, a better understanding of Muslim Americans. MUNA ODEH: All they know is what they see
on TV. And, obviously, that’s not ever painted in
the best light. That’s especially important for me, being
a Muslim female who’s covered, who wears a hijab. It shows them that we are the same, that our
struggles are all the same. JEFFREY BROWN: Dr. Angela Odoms-Young, a professor
of nutrition at the University of Illinois-Chicago, is studying IMAN’s work. She sees positive results. DR. ANGELA ODOMS-YOUNG, University of Illinois-Chicago:
Traditionally, we used to focus on individuals. Can you make a good decision when it comes
to healthy eating? We now know, from a research perspective,
that community matters. It’s really important that you have access
to fruits and vegetables, not just what you can do as an individual. JEFFREY BROWN: Odoms-Young says that IMAN
is helping to break a long-held myth that residents of low-income communities simply
don’t want healthier food. DR. ANGELA ODOMS-YOUNG: There’s many people in
low-income communities and communities of color that they are very interested in having
access to healthy food options. But one of the big problems is the structural
barriers. JEFFREY BROWN: Another structural barrier
being tackled here, finding jobs for men like Khalid Partee, a former gang member and drug
dealer. KHALID PARTEE, Chicago: I did 14 years in
federal prison. JEFFREY BROWN: After his release, Partee earned
a technical degree in heating and air conditioning ventilation. KHALID PARTEE: I graduated in a year-and-a-half
at the top of my class. JEFFREY BROWN: He credits Nashashibi with
helping to turn around his life and now teaches construction skills to men recently released
from prison. It’s part of IMAN’s reentry program designed
that was provide both jobs and to fix up abandoned homes in the neighborhood. KHALID PARTEE: When these guys come out of
prison, if we can try to get them a trade quickly or get them accustomed to being in
a working condition, getting up in the morning and coming to class and getting up, going
to work, you start making better decisions. You top taking less chances, because you have
responsibility. You have got more people that rely on you
now. JEFFREY BROWN: For Rami Nashashibi, it’s all
part of meeting the needs of residents in these often-neglected neighborhoods. But even after 20 years, he admits that far
more work is needed. RAMI NASHASHIBI: You know, for every one person
you’re able to employ, there’s 50 that are looking for jobs. For every block that you stabilize, there’s
the sense that there’s 25, 35 blocks that need that exact same intervention. JEFFREY BROWN: Undaunted, IMAN is actually
expanding. It’s opened a new center in Atlanta, and hopes
to work to other cities around the nation. For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Jeffrey Brown
in Chicago.

Author: Kennedi Daugherty

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