Nuzhat Jawed is a Muslim woman who moved from Pakistan to Sterling Heights, Mich., a suburb of Detroit. She has two adopted children, both Muslim, and has acted as a foster parent for dozens more, both Muslim and non-Muslim.
Dearborn is home to the largest concentration of Muslims in North America, and Jawed is one of only about a dozen Muslim foster parents in the area. Since child welfare agencies don’t typically record religious affiliation of children in foster care, the precise number of Muslim children in care is unknown. But the existence of Muslim Family Services – an organization that provides mental health and other support services, including foster parent certification, to Muslim families – combined with the numbers of Muslim orphans entering the U.S. as refugees suggests that there may be a growing need for these homes.
Muhammad, the prophet and founder of Islam, was an adopted child and became an adoptive parent. But in the U.S., Islamic communities in areas like Dearborn have been hesitant to join the ranks of foster and adoptive parents. The lack of Muslim foster homes complicates the already challenging task of ensuring a child’s mental and physical well-being when she is removed from her parents’ care.
“There is no doubt that in the Muslim community there is a need for foster parents,” said Imam Mohammad Ali Elahi, the spiritual father of Dearborn’s Islamic House of Wisdom, a mosque and community center for the region’s Shia Muslim community.
If other Muslim families can’t take care of kids, he said, “we don’t know where they will end up. We will lose them to families who don’t know about the faith of the kids, about the values of the families.”
At Starr Commonwealth, a provider offering community-based early intervention and other family services in Michigan, counselor John Dodge worked with a Muslim mother whose children were placed with a non-Muslim foster family.
“The mother wanted to dictate all the things that went on in the foster home, but it just can’t work out that way,” Dodge said.
The foster family made attempts to respect the children’s culture and religion, like preparing meals without pork, which Islam considers haram (forbidden), “but then the mom made bacon for her biological children, and the Muslim kids tried it and loved it. The biological mother complained, and it made it very difficult for the relationship.”
Similarly, Dodge says that there are “very few foster homes willing to take children to a mosque” and that children may not want to go to a mosque.
“Going to services of any religion is often a family thing to do,” Dodge said, “so when you have children telling a foster parent they don’t want to go to mosque, the foster parent won’t take them. That’s why having a Muslim foster parent is important – going to a mosque is a family activity they’re already familiar with.”
Elahi has invited a number of foster agencies to speak at the mosque, and the events were well-attended. But because of certain religious and cultural concerns, he said, recruitment numbers have remained low.
“There are some families who are very interested,” Elahi said, “but they are trying to fix these challenges that they have.”
Adoption has been and remains problematic in the Muslim community, partly because of the requirements for raising a non-biological child in a Muslim home – requirements that translate to foster parents and children as well. Once the child reaches puberty, they become what is known as non-Mahram, meaning Islamic rules of modesty between strangers take effect. Adoptive fathers are forbidden from being alone with their adopted daughters after the girls reach puberty, at which point the girls are also required to wear a hijab.
Adoptive mothers, likewise, are required to wear hijabs in front of their adopted post-puberty sons, and are forbidden from being alone with them.
But it is precisely because of these religious requirements and practices, advocates say, that recruiting Muslim foster parents is so important.
“Islam is not just a religion, it’s a lifestyle,” says Tahira Khalidi, head counselor for the Detroit-based Muslim Family Services. She’s also a Muslim.
Imagine, she says, a Muslim girl, who, to emulate mom, decided to wear a hijab at a young age. Now consider what happens if this child is sent to a non-Muslim foster home. “It’s already a difficult transition, and now you have a child going from wearing a hijab to shorts.”
Khalidi, who has spoken at the Islamic House of Wisdom, tells the community that these are just some of the reasons why they should consider becoming licensed foster parents.
“One of the most difficult experiences is to be taken from your home and family, no matter how negative that situation may have been,” Khalidi said. “You’re snatched from everything you love – even smells you’re used to – and put into an alien situation. It’s traumatic for anyone. Muslims going to non-Muslim homes erodes everything the child’s used to, from clothes to diet,”
Bob Wheaton, the public information officer for the Michigan Department of Health & Human Services, which oversees Metro Detroit’s foster care services, echoes Elahi’s concerns about cultural preservation:
“Children going to a home with a foster family of their own religion helps in providing stability, and we want to keep everything as stable as possible. It’s an upheaval of life to go into foster care. Which is why we try to find a relative’s home to maintain stability, or, at times, other community members [the children] already have a relationship with – from the church, synagogue, or mosque.
It’s extremely valuable, really valuable, to have partners in the faith community.”
Compounding the cultural issues is the fact that many potential Muslim foster parents are immigrants and bring their own cultural understandings to the new family table. “Foster care is a relatively new concept to many Muslim immigrants,” Khalidi said.
Jawed, one of the few Muslim foster parents in the Metro Detroit community, hadn’t even heard of foster care when she first arrived in North America from Pakistan in 1994.
“Where I come from, the family just takes them,” she said, then mentioned kafala, the Islamic concept closest to fostering. Translating as sponsorship, it almost exclusively refers to family members raising nephews and cousins.
“I never imagined a stranger taking them,” said Jawed. “From the culture I came from, I could never conceive of my child being given away to someone else.”
Jawed currently has two children she adopted, and has acted as a foster parent for dozens more, both Muslim and non-Muslim. “This is why spreading the word about the possibilities for fostering and adoption are so important in the [Muslim] community. People need to understand how it works.”
But even if the immigrants from Libya, Syria, Iran, Iraq, and Pakistan understand the concept of kafala, there is a more subtle – but still potent – hurdle that Muslim families in America may face: anti-Islamic sentiment. Muslims hear calls in the media for a database of those practicing Islam, or a ban on Muslim immigrants, then are told that if they want to be foster parents, they need to undergo a “house investigation.”
“We’re talking about communities with lots of immigrants,” Khalidi said of Metro Detroit, which is home to people all of the nationalities mentioned above. “Immigrants are often concerned about running afoul of the law, and now they find they’re required to submit to an investigation of their house.”
“Sometimes,” Khalidi said, “they just don’t want to take a chance.”
Privacy is a concern is challenging foster parent recruitment “across the board,” said Dodge, of Starr Commonwealth.
“Fewer and fewer families want to go through the intense scrutiny that’s required to become licensed,” said Dodge. “It’s a great turn-off opening your life to stranger, and telling them everything about yourself, all your past issues. I would think [this intrusiveness] is even more of a turn-off in the Muslim community, especially the immigrant community.”
It is becoming increasingly important for Muslims to endure being scrutinized by the state if they want to help children who need homes. Khalidi, Elahi, and Nuzhat, though speaking separately, all stressed that foreign wars will only heighten the need for Muslim foster parents. In 2014, the United Nations Children’s Fund reported that the number of children who fled Syria without their parents was around 8,000 – a number that has only grown as violence in the region has intensified. The vast majority of these orphans are Muslim.
“It’s easy to write a check, but these children are traumatized,” Khalidi said. “And they’re often bringing dynamics that families are not willing to deal with – but they must. They’re coming out of a [terrible] situation and need extra support. Fostering these children, you’d know that you saved a child from a life of trauma.”
Jawed is not licensed for refugee children because the certification is different than the standard foster-parent certification, but “when there’s a need, I might change it,” she said. It’s something she’s willing to do, she said, because, based on her experiences, she believes that it doesn’t matter where the children are from, or their culture, nationality, or even religion – it’s where they call their new home that’s important.
Jawed agrees that “foster care takes away your privacy – and Arabs and Muslims, in general, are private people.” She appreciates these concerns, and doesn’t shy away from warning potential foster parents that they can expect everything, “down to the inside of their fridge,” to be examined.
But Jawed also tells them that the process to become a licensed foster parent is not overly vexing; there’s a 13-week training, lectures to attend, paperwork. “And yes, your house is looked at, but I’ve never had any problem.”
She tells potential Muslim foster parents that privacy and cultural difficulties should not outweigh the need to keep Muslim children in the community.
“Yes, there are challenges to raising non-Mahram children, but I’m willing to wear a hijab around my son because I love him that much,” said Jawed. “My children are the best thing to happen to me – I can’t thank Allah enough. They talk like me, act like me – they’re my kids. They know they’re adopted, they know all the Islamic laws, but they’re ok with it, because they know I’m their mom.”
Josh Herman is a Los Angeles-based writer and freelance reporter.