Nurse Opens Domestic Violence Shelter That Gives Free Healthcare To Homeless and Uninsured
By Jacob Uitti
Tears came to her eyes when she talked about her grandmother, who sacrificed so much for the people she loved. Tears come to Nurse Asma’s eyes when talking about her father and mother. And they came to her eyes when she reflects on the seemingly unstoppable forces of violence in the world.
It’s hard to know where to begin when talking about Asma Inge-Hanif. The hardworking, selfless caregiver, who is the director and co-Founder of IBM/Al-Nisaa Healthy Solutions Medical Center, has done so much for others throughout her career. She is a nurse, a chaplain, and has started countless initiatives to help underserved and forgotten people and she does so having seen so much sadness in and around her life over the years.
Nevertheless, she continues to battle against them. It’s for that reason we talked about her work, her family and how positive change can happen.
Nursing as a way to overcome discrimination in the South
JU: What drew you to care for people?
AIH: It had to do with my grandmother. I grew up very poor, down south. My mother ended up leaving North Carolina to go to New York because she wanted to have a better and different life than the people in North Carolina had. The thing that I remember growing up is that my mother said to me,
“Go to school to be a nurse because when people are hurting they don’t care what color you are.”
JU: Your Grandmother worked as a maid for a physician who refused to treat her cancer. How did her life experience influence yours?
AIH: There was so much prejudice and discriminatory practices, in the south. For the most part for African-Americans the only job they could get was picking cotton, picking tobacco or working what I called, “maid slave,” because you didn’t really make any money in the homes of the rich white people, the ones with money. And that was the job my grandmother had. My mother was the only person in her generation in our family who graduated from high school. She realized that going to school was the best means by which to do better.
My grandmother worked for this rich physician. I can never remember my grandmother sleeping. It seems that she would get up before everybody to make breakfast for us in the house. She had it there before we would go to school. And then she would leave to go to her job working as a maid in their house. She would come back so late in the evening that we were already in bed. She worked really hard, my grandmother did.
The thing that I also remember is that the gentleman my grandmother worked for, like I said, was a physician. One day she came to him and she said she felt a knot in her stomach. It was just the size of a teeny-tiny green pea. She could feel it and she told him and basically what he told her was, “Don’t worry about it, it will never amount to anything.” Those were his words to her. Remember, we didn’t have any health insurance, so you did whatever herbs and those types of things. I can think of injuries that I had that my grandmother used herbs on me. But that’s what he told her.
Five years later, that pea turned into the cancer that killed her. Had it been addressed at the time when she first made mention, they probably could have just opened her up, cut it out and it would have been gone, it would have been done. But she continued to work and she started to be in pain in the last year that she worked but she kept working because that is what people did. They needed the money.
She kept working until she passed out and she was taken to - and I’m trying to think if it was Duke University, another one of those teaching hospitals. They took her to the hospital, they opened her up and the cancer had spread so much that all they did was sew her back up and send her home to die. She didn’t even warrant hospice or none of that. They sent her home to die. And I can’t even tell this story without crying.
That was my motivation. My grandmother’s is the house I was staying in because my mother went up north and she sent money back to help my grandmother to take care of me and my brother. I just loved her so much. She was such a kind and caring person. I don’t know if she ever got any days off. But what I decided - and I was in the 9th grade. I remember she died when I was in the 9th grade. I remember visiting her in the hospital. She was thirsty and she was asking for water, she was so thirsty. Of course, they said she couldn’t have any water. It was just a very sad thing to watch.
But why it bothers me is because my grandmother was, in terms of society, she was someone who didn’t matter. She was dispensable, you get rid of her and you get another maid to come in. She didn’t really matter and I loved her so! She mattered to me. So, what I wanted to do was take the words of my mother, going to school to be a nurse, and take what happened to my grandmother. I said that I wanted to go to school and be a nurse and establish a health center to care for people like my grandmother. That’s how it started.
JU: Asma, thank you for sharing that. I’m so sorry.
AIS: That’s the truth. I know some people start things for a business, or something like that. But I started because I saw people who were marginalized - still, even, in this society - who “don’t matter,” who have no status, who have no worth, and how they’re treated. So, that’s the reason why I wanted to go to school and be able to do that. To care for the poor and the needy and the underserved, the uninsured and undocumented. That was my original motivation.
But the other part, though, has to do with my father. He was part of the original Montford Point Marines. You don’t hear that much about them but they were like the Buffalo Soldiers or the Tuskegee Airmen, well they were the same thing to the Marines. They broke the color barrier. My father fought in order to be able to make this country a place where everybody was welcome and had rights, beginning with African Americans. So, he is my continued inspiration to help those in need.
How Social Status Affects Quality of Care
JU: What motivated you to open a clinic - for the poor and marginalized?
AIS: Oh, you know, absolutely! I first noticed this with my grandmother. But I actually went to Howard University.. I saw there how - and this is true with teaching hospitals. Teaching hospitals are where people go who don’t have health insurance. So, when you come into these places, you actually sign something that says that you agree to have a student [work on you]. You basically have no rights if you don’t have any money or health insurance.
At Howard University, I saw firsthand the types of people who were like my grandmother coming through there. Originally, my goal was to care for the people like my grandmother but being at Howard University, which is also where I became Muslim, what I would see is that when Muslim women would come to the hospital and they were covered up trying to be modest, or if they were asking for particular things like if they didn’t want to have men in the delivery room, seeing them uncovered. They also wanted to have the baby’s father in the room so they could call a prayer.
The doctors may say, “Sure, you can have any of these things.” But something I realized is that when the women would come into the hospital, none of those things were granted. The reason why is because a doctor cannot write an order that is against hospital policy. Even though he may have told the women one thing, even if he wrote it, it wasn’t going to happen. That’s when I realized it was not going to be sufficient to just provide the care. If you want to give people care in a dignified manner, then you had to have your own clinic.
It started out with people who didn’t have any money, status, worth. It started out for people who were African-American but through the years, it’s become just poor people in general, immigrants and women.
Women are the ones who receive the least amount of, not status, but respect when it comes to healthcare, which is why people make a joke when a woman comes in to have a pap smear, they say that if it was a man needing that type of procedure, they would find a way where it wouldn’t hurt! And that’s true.
If you study the history, it was the women who took care of pregnant women. Not an obstetrician. A midwife was in existence before an obstetrician. They only established someone as an obstetrician when - and this is political stuff - they made pregnancy a diagnosis. Before, it was just a state of being, a condition. But then if you made it a medical condition, now you can bill the insurance companies for the service. That’s when obstetricians took it over because there was money involved. Before then, it was one of those things that was beneath them.
When you talk about demographics, there’s a lot that comes to play when you’re dealing with healthcare. When they decided to make pregnancy a medical condition and bring people into hospitals to give birth, one of the drugs used for pain years ago didn’t start out as something for human beings, it started out as something for animals, for horses. It wasn’t that the medicine wasn’t for pain, it was an amnesiac. You give it to the woman and she doesn’t know the whole time she was in labor that she was hurting. She won’t remember.
Why this is significant is because the way in which women were treated in labor was horrible. It was not until the white women, the hippies, who protested the inhumane treatment of women in labor. A lot of what you see now occurring in hospitals are a result of public outcry because that demographic protested and it ended up benefiting others. But it’s hardly ever that people of color are the ones to create change because they don’t have the political clout or weight in society that makes a difference.
JU: In your opinion, do people from certain demographics receive a higher quality of care?
AIS: What I learned more so than anything else is that if you don’t have money or status - and you can add to the list race and gender. Money is at the top and next is status, if you’re somebody important, or if you’re of a certain race or a certain gender, those are the things in the hierarchy that allow you, or don’t, to receive quality care. That’s how it works in society.
Now, there’s always going to be a category of individuals who will stand up for human rights. There will always be. It’s not like the whole world is bad. There are people whose hearts - people who don’t feel that sense of entitlement. It is always the people who do care about others who make the change we want to see in the world.
Meghan Markle, for example, married a prince and the whole world was following her pregnancy. On the day she gave birth, all the headlines talked about it. Well, you know what? Somewhere else in the world there were other babies being born. The only difference between those babies and her baby is status based on whom she is married to. [The babies] hadn’t accomplished anything yet! It’s not like they worked towards that particular status. But her baby was born with status and no other baby born on that day had that same notoriety. That’s the point. And is that fair? I think about my daughter who had a baby, not on the same time but in the same timeframe, and he has no status at all. Nobody cared about him being born.
A Shelter For Domestic Violence Survivors
JU:Do you ever feel discouraged?
AIS: Um, well, yes. In fact, it makes me feel discouraged when I think about domestic violence. When I first started working with individuals who were victims of domestic violence, my mantra was to eradicate domestic violence. I was speaking, had a shelter, was counseling people, all of those things. That was my goal when I started out.
Then one day, and I call this my “Kit-Kat” story, when I was living in my shelter there was a woman who came to me. She had been brought there by the police because her husband had beaten her so badly that the neighbors called the police and they busted the door down. She was badly beaten, she had blood in her head. They brought her to me and I accepted her.
She was there for maybe three days when one night she woke me up at, like, two o’clock in the morning saying, “Asma, Asma, Asma, wake up! I need a Kit-Kat! I need a Kit-Kat!” I’m thinking to myself, well she had two children and was somebody having a diabetic moment, do they need some sugar at two o’clock in the morning? I’m like, “What’s happening? What’s happening?” Then, I see at her knees her three-year-old son, he’s kicking her, kicking her. He’s awake and he’s kicking her and he wants his Kit-Kat.
That puts tears in my eyes because all this time I’m saying we can eradicate domestic violence but in this particular moment, I realized that I cannot and no one will ever be able to eradicate domestic violence. Why? Because looking at this three-year-old who’s beating his mother and she’s accepting it, the abusers of tomorrow are already born. He was already mimicking the behavior he had witnessed in his own father.
So, two things were happening. The son has the potential to grow up to be an abuser and the woman’s six-year-old daughter is being taught this is the woman’s lot in life, you accept this as the norm and that’s why we will never be able to eradicate it. That’s what’s discouraging. I know that the work that I do, even once I’m dead and gone, there will still be a need for it. Which is why now as a senior citizen, I would love to have the organization be sustainable, to be able to have the financial support to keep it going, not unlike the Salvation Army or the Red Cross.
But the problem that’s associated with [my work] goes back to the demographics. Women’s issues and social services are not big elements in a community. The Red Cross deals with natural disasters because everybody can get behind natural disasters but look how hard it is to deal with domestic violence? If you look at the history of things that have been done to women, look how hard it is to prove rape? All the things that women went through with the #MeToo movement. All this is discouraging because [too often] the burden of proof is on the woman. It’s not an easy task.
“From the womb of a refugee a citizen was born.”
JU: When thinking about your work, are there memories that bring you joy?
AIS: Okay! I will tell you, I do have one! Human rights organizations often contact me when someone comes into this country - and in fact somebody called me yesterday, a human rights organization in Washington D.C. So, I get these a lot. And one of these cases several years ago had to do with the Boko Haram, [a group who kidnapped] girls from a school in Nigeria, who were raped and used for whatever, for this army of men.
There was no public outcry about this. And it was not until Michelle Obama found out and she did the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls that [there was any publicity]. So, I was called by an agency about one of the girls that was a part of [the kidnapping]. She had been raped. She had been helped out of the country and now she was pregnant.
But the way it was, she had to make a choice: if she stayed in her country, she would have to abort the baby because it was a symbol of what has happened and it would be a “disgrace to her family.” So, she would have to have an abortion. But if she wanted to keep the child, she would have to leave and she would never be able to return home. So, she decided she wanted to keep her child. So, she came to America and they contacted me and she was in the shelter. I helped her through her pregnancy. I was with her in labor and in delivery and all of that. This was a brave decision that she made to never be able to go back on behalf of her child.
But she couldn’t go back for her six-week check up, she said, because she couldn’t afford it. I said, “What do you mean?” She couldn’t afford to go because what had been the case before this current presidential administration, women were never denied prenatal care. Because it was better to get prenatal care then to have to deal with a child that had some kind of birth defect because she didn’t get any.
So, she had to pay for her prenatal care, she had to pay for labor, she didn’t have to pay for delivery, and she had to pay for her six-week checkup.
Now, this is the part that I always ask people: why didn’t she have to pay for delivery? And the answer is: because she delivered a citizen.
AIS: I gave her what we called a “naming ceremony” for the baby. And I titled it, and this is the part that was happy, “From the womb of a refugee a citizen was born.” That was such a happy feeling. I have a picture of me and the baby because that was just a very happy moment.
JU: That’s beautiful.
AIS: And she went on to be able to get her status in this country and she went to school and now she’s graduated. She was with me for three years, all this took a long time. Now, she’s out on her own, her and her baby.
San Diego Padres Nurse Hero Recipient
JU: Let me ask you about another happy memory. What was it like to receive the 2019 Padres’ Nurses Hero Award and share it with your 90-year-old father, a former recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal?
AIS: An award is an award but what made that so beautiful was that my father was there. Even though I accomplished things, he was never able to be present because I’m on the east coast and he’s on the west coast. Originally, I didn’t tell him about the award. My actual plan was to have my son that was there with me, he was to go to my father’s house and sit with him because he’s 90-years-old and turn the TV on so that he could watch it. He wasn’t going to know. But because baseball, his game was going to be on. That was the plan.
I just happened to be talking to him a few days before I was supposed to come and I said, “Dad, you know how you love baseball?” He said yes. And I said, “When was the last time you went to a baseball game?” He said, “About two months ago.” I said, “Two months ago?!” I’m thinking this man hasn’t been to a baseball game in YEARS.
So, I said, “Well, Dad, you know what? I’m coming there to go and see the Padres versus the Dodgers and would you like to go?” And he said, “Of course I would!”
I was so shocked! The man is 90-years-old. But he still didn’t know why I was coming out. And it was something we had never done before. And for him to be there, that was a memory - it was something I had never gotten to do with my father. He’s on one coast and I’m over here and we never could do these kinds of things growing up. To be at a baseball game and to be honored - my ministry is named after my father. So, to be there with him - I’m his daughter, I’m his child.
It’s always so good to have your daddy proud of you, you know? That’s why it felt so good. Just to be able to have the reward was, you know, awesome.
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