*By Claus Grue
Ten years ago, while studying to become a nurse, Khadijah Abdullah was confronted at a hospital with a rather difficult patient, a Muslim living with AIDS who was also coping with several other medical issues. When Abdullah realized how isolated and stigmatized this patient was in his own faith community, she became aware of her prejudices and ignorance and she decided to do something about it.
Back at her college in New Haven, Connecticut, she organized an AIDS awareness week encouraging students to learn more about HIV and AIDS and to test themselves. That initiative eventually became the foundation for RAHMA, a non-government organization which addresses HIV and AIDS issues in faith communities, through education, advocacy and empowerment.
“It started with identifying a need in the Muslim communities in America, where in many of them, HIV entails stigmatization and shame. When people with strong religious beliefs and close ties to faith communities all of a sudden find themselves ostracised because they are living with HIV, their whole life can lose meaning. I’ve had individuals come to me, stating they wanted to commit suicide. This is serious. This is real life. We strive to create a community, a safe haven, with a sense of belonging for those who feel alone and need a place to call home,” Abdullah explains.
Originally, RAHMA was focused on her own Muslim communities, but soon Abdullah saw the same need in other faith communities. Now working with seven faiths, including Christians, Jews, Hindus, Bahais, Sikhs and Buddhists, RAHMA is still the only organization of its kind under the umbrella of faith-based organizations.
“There is stigma in every faith community and a special need in that environment for what we do. Our mission is to break down barriers and create safe spaces for all who are living with or affected by HIV and AIDS. We strive to give a voice to the voiceless and amplify the pain they face. No one should never be made to feel like they don’t belong”, Abdullah says.
Since its founding in 2012 RAHMA has become a voice to be reckoned with and has organized a retreat for HIV-positive Muslims throughout the USA and workshops where faith community representatives can learn to cope with stigmatization. It also gathers youth- and support groups and participates in health fairs and conventions.
The National Faith HIV and AIDS Awareness Day is another initiative. In its inaugural year in 2017, the multi faith-based event was held in five different cities across the USA and reached 150,000 people through social media and ground activities.
“The faith aspect of our work is very important because faith breeds not only compassion and mercy, but unfortunately also prejudices. Faith is the driving force behind RAHMA and mercy is part of our everyday life, and central to my own faith,” Abdullah explains.
It is thus no coincidence that RAHMA means “mercy” in Arabic.
Alongside the George Washington University Milken School of Public Health, RAHMA also campaigns against female genital mutilation/cutting, which over half a million women and girls in the US are at risk of undergoing, or have survived, according to a study by the US Department of Health and Human Services. Funded by the US Department of Health and Human Services, both RAHMA and George Washington University are working to create a virtual toolkit that healthcare providers can use to provide culturally competent care to survivors.
On Abdullah’s agenda right now is creating a web-based matchmaking community, where people living with HIV can find a partner or a friend in a similar situation.
“An initiative which there definitely is a need for. Everyone deserves a friend or a partner to love, no matter their HIV status”, she says.
As founder and executive director of RAHMA, Abdullah was invited to speak last week at a workshop in Geneva on HIV among migrants and refugees, hosted by UNAIDS, the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the International Catholic Migration Commission.
“I’ve learned so much here and I am honoured to be given the opportunity to present RAHMA’s work and share our experiences with such important organizations”, Abdullah concludes.
“Join forces, work together” – WCC convenes workshop on HIV among migrants, refugees (WCC press release 20 February 2019)
*Claus Grue is a communication consultant for the World Council of Churches