It started modestly.
In 2004, Fozia Ahmed saw a need for social services in the Muslim community. With a vision but no space, she used what she had: her basement.
Four years later, a free clinic was born. Volunteer doctors, borrowing rooms from the nearby Salam Elementary School, provided free medical care on Saturdays.
The clinic moved to new premises in 2015. In view of expansion and growth, the Muslim community and health center began offering services six days a week, added a senior center and began providing refugee services.
Ahmed is still the president of the Muslim community and the health center. Arman Tahir, the clinic’s operations manager, said the clinic’s development stemmed from one mission: to care for everyone in the community.
“Our door is open and we will do almost anything to ensure people are taken care of,” Tahir said.
The Muslim Community and Health Center, a medical clinic at 803 W. Layton Ave., provides clinical and behavioral health services. The clinic is open to everyone in the community, regardless of belief or culture.
Tahir said the team is trying to remove financial barriers as much as possible. Many patients are on Medicaid, and the clinic offers a tiered rate for uninsured patients. Tahir said the clinic treats about 4,500 to 5,000 patients a year in its services.
Salma Akhter, administrative assistant and clinic swimmer at the Muslim Community and Health Center, said the center has four branches: primary care, behavioral health, a day center for seniors and a resource center for refugees.
The clinic has seven providers who provide primary care services and three who administer behavioral health services. It recently added a cardiologist to its roster for specialized care.
The clinic’s Sakina Senior Center provides a space for contacts and activities among the elders in the community. This includes cooking classes and a meal program that provides meals to enrolled seniors.
The clinic also provides resources to a growing number of refugees, including Afghan, Somali and Burmese communities. One of the emerging needs is mental health services.
Refugees may suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and anger management problems as a result of experiences fleeing their home country. Being able to make them feel at home makes a big difference, Akhter said.
“Refugees can experience culture shock,” Akhter said. “Being in an environment where your language is being spoken and seeing people who look like you and maybe have similar understandings and values as you is really comforting.”
The clinic’s staff can provide services in 12 languages, Akhter said. Six languages are spoken internally and a further six are provided by interpreters.
Janan Najeeb, president of the Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition, said it’s crucial that staff at the clinic be proficient in different languages and recognize the different cultures and countries people come from, as well as factors like refugee status.
“It’s important for patients to feel comfortable and safe,” Najeeb said. “When they realize that their culture is taken into account, you will have a happier patient and better outcomes.”
Without this understanding, people will leave the experience without feeling heard. Najeeb said the learning curve for navigating health systems is also something that needs to be addressed.
“Many times people have felt let down, especially if they don’t speak English well,” Najeeb said. “Sometimes they feel like doctors are seeing them and getting rid of them… We need to make more provision for people who are less understanding of the systems.”
Tahir said the clinic is the first of its kind in southeastern Wisconsin. It is in the process of becoming a federally recognized health center this year and hopes to achieve status in fall 2022.
For Akhter, the importance of having visibility and understanding with the community is obvious. While doing routine rounds at the clinic recently, she found herself giving a little girl a pediatric vaccine. When the visit was over, the little girl said, “I want to be like you when I grow up.”
“Something like this is really heartbreaking,” Akhter said. “They see the care we’re putting in and the effort we’re putting in, and they’re like, ‘Oh, I want to do that, that’s something I want to pursue.’ That really makes it more meaningful and gives more meaning to what we do.”
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