Muna had only been in the U.S. for a few years when she and her husband decided to separate. A refugee from Iraq, Muna spoke little English. Other than her children, she had no family in the country and had never lived on her own before. “Where can I go?” she thought.
She called the International Rescue Committee and they recommended a women’s transition house. The house, run by ICNA Relief, an Islamic charity organization, had strict rules. But Muna was glad to find a safe place to stay, and one with an Islamic environment.
In a quiet neighborhood in East Plano, the ICNA transition house provides a roof — and stability — for women who have no other place to go. It’s open to women of all faiths and does not promote any religious beliefs. But it also addresses the unique needs of Muslim women, which ICNA Relief’s leadership says is not the case in other area shelters.
Clients face a wide range of circumstances. Some have experienced chronic homelessness, while others, like Muna, have left their husbands and have no work experience. Former residents say the home helped them become independent and confident. Muna and another client agreed to speak with The Dallas Morning News on the condition that only their first names be used for privacy reasons.
Unlike a traditional shelter, transitional housing is intended to be a long-term solution to help those experiencing homelessness gain self-sufficiency. This transition home is one of the few in North Texas that serves women experiencing homelessness.
Community leaders endorse the house’s mission. Imam Omar Suleiman, founder and president of the Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research, says the house’s staff members make their clients feel welcome. “They work from such a deep sense of purpose and faith, that they’re really vested in the real success of the victims…” he said.
The transition house is one of 23 houses nationwide operated by ICNA Relief. Since resources are limited, all have strict eligibility requirements, only accepting women who are able-bodied, have no serious mental health issues and have not been involved in a partner-abuse situation.
The Dallas home, which at any given time can house up to 10 people, was built in October 2018. Since then, it has served 22 women and 18 children. Only three women have backslid into homelessness, all struggling with their mental health, said Hala Halabi, who oversees refugee programs for ICNA Relief and is the transition home’s site director.
Halabi helps manage multiple programs for ICNA Relief in North Texas but spends a lot of time on this one. “We don’t call it a shelter, because it’s not a shelter,” she said. “It is a program that helps sisters to stand on their feet again.”
Halabi said that women would call her, crying. They felt out of place at shelters in the area. Some were forced to eat pork since there were few other food options at shelters, she said. Others might get bullied for wearing the hijab or for praying.
Suleiman says discrimination against Muslim women in shelters is a common experience. Shelters are overwhelmed, he said, and sometimes don’t have the time or willingness to understand the unique needs of Muslims.
That doesn’t happen at the transition home, where ICNA Relief provides halal meat, and women can practice their religion free of judgment in private rooms.
A messy separation
Muna’s separation from her husband was messy, and their kids got caught in the middle. He ended up calling Child Protective Services, but the mother retained custody. A few months later, a teacher noticed a mark on one of the kids’ faces and reported it to child protective services, and the children were taken from Muna, said Halabi. ICNA Relief helped place the kids in a foster home run by a Muslim family.
“Everything was new. I didn’t know anything,” Muna said in Arabic. “With my husband, with the house, with the new living space and the situation with my children.”
After leaving the transition house, Muna reconciled with her husband to regain custody of her kids. CPS recently visited her new apartment and deemed it a safe living space for the kids, Halabi said.
ICNA Relief helps clients with food, jobs and transportation. Through donations, the organization provided Muna with a car and helped her find an overnight shift at a warehouse in Farmers Branch.
The East Plano Islamic Center has typically supported the transition house with $1,000 each month, said Riyad Chowdhury, who handles finances for the mosque. The center has also provided financial assistance for some of the women after they leave the home.
Chowdhury says ICNA Relief needs a second transition house in North Texas, given the current economic crisis. “Sister Hala is doing a very good job,” he said. “But she’s a one-person show in this area.”
Improving their skills
Sumbal, a Pakistani immigrant, stayed at the Dallas transition home for a year. Her husband cheated on her, then kicked her out of their home, leading a friend to recommend the transition house.
At first, Sumbal said she had a difficult time adjusting to the house’s strict rules. Residents are not allowed in the house from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. During these working hours, they must be out, either working, looking for a job or improving their skills. This includes their children, who in a normal life would have to be dropped off at a babysitter or daycare. These rules did not apply during the stay-at-home orders.
“We don’t give them a chance to be lazy,” Halabi said. Still, ICNA Relief helps them find jobs and people to look after their kids.
Sumbal said the home’s rules taught her how to manage everyday life and become independent. At weekly meetings, she discussed her goals with Halabi and other case managers. She learned how to multitask, manage her time and think critically.
“When I first got there, I didn’t have a lot of confidence,” Sumbal said in Urdu. She was concerned that she would not be able to live alone and work alone, as well as take care of her kids. “I didn’t have a lot of confidence in knowing I could do all of those things by myself.”
She credits Halabi and the organization with helping her realize that she can still live a full life without having to depend on her husband. “With their help,” she said, “I started to remake my life.”
Alyssa Fernandez, an archives and research associate, contributed to this report.
Article Courtesy: dallasnews.com