SHAFAQNA – Tensions related to race, ethnicity and immigration have spiked in recent months, but a Muslim mother and public health worker has made it both her hobby and her profession to make some progress for the younger generation of Muslim Americans.
Khadija Gurnah, 40, of Middletown, this month made her second trip of the year to meet with President Barack Obama at the White House. In February she was part of a small group to meet with Obama in Baltimore on finding support for American Muslims as they face overt anti-Islamic views.
Three days ago, she participated in an event with Obama and Muslim leaders to mark Eid al-Fitr, the end of the Ramadan holiday, and to speak out against hatred and distrust of Muslims.
In the last few years, she has frequently traveled to the nation’s capital to help advise on how to connect Muslim social service and mental health providers with government programs.
Lately Gurnah’s efforts are focused on support for Muslim young people, including mental health services and resources for Muslims in the juvenile justice system. She said the work is critical right now and takes inspiration from the support for Muslims despite a rise in “Islamophobia.”
“We’re a very small minority, but we are a very visible minority right now,” Gurnah said. “Politics on a national level right now is really being driven by issues around Muslims and immigrants.”
Gurnah’s work defies neat categorization beyond a clear commitment to social activism. She’s not the director of any agency, and sometimes her work lasts for only a few months or as long as grant money holds out.
“She is very much motivated by the end goal, and her goal is to make sure we have open and inclusive communities,” said Elizabeth Bradley, a professor at Yale University and director of the Global Health Leadership Institute. “The most effective way to accomplish that could be to go to the White House, or it could be most effective to align community groups. You need a network of people to get things done and she’s really good at building that network. She’s a great communicator.”
Bradley was Gurnah’s adviser when she was a graduate student at Yale. The two have stayed in touch — Gurnah often calls for advice on her approach to an issue or to check in on the broader, global context of some topics.
“She is very honest about the cultural issue. She doesn’t just try to fit in,” Bradley said. “She really sticks to her values and the values of the Muslim community she’s working on behalf of.”
Gurnah was born in Kenya, grew up in Papua New Guinea, went to high school in England and college in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She got a master’s in public health from Yale in 2009. She met her husband, Amin Gonzalez, at a mosque in Baltimore when she was visiting a friend.
“Having moved around so much, this is home, I’ve never felt so at home,” Gurnah said. “The things I’m doing, I’m doing because I’m an American. I wouldn’t be doing this anywhere else.”
Gurnah said she became a social activist after spending a few years working at the Community Health Center in Middletown doing Medicaid outreach, and outreach to the Muslim community to enlist people in programs created by the Affordable Care Act. During that work, she met many Muslim youth, who are wholly American and know no other home, but have come to feel like outcasts in their communities.
“As an adult I can see a better tomorrow,” Gurnah said, but she’s not as sure about young people. “When you have young people who are growing up with this, what’s happening to them? They’re hearing it [prejudice against Muslims] with intensity on social media.”
Gurnah said Muslim youth need support now more than ever. Last month, she met with Education Secretary John B. King Jr. at the White House in a discussion on giving educators skills to support Muslim, Arab and Sikh students. Also earlier this year she met with the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to plan for suicide prevention, anti-bullying, crisis hotline and mental health programs for Muslim youth. Gurnah said many of them may see discussing depression or bullying as a cultural taboo and they need to have access to cultural-sensitive providers.
“We brought together Muslim mental health providers and federal government mental health services” but there is much more work to be done to replicate valuable relationships on a larger scale, Gurnah said. “There’s pockets of incredible work happening, but it’s just not consistent across the country.”
Gurnah, “a mother of three, step-mom to one,” has been an activist for others in addition to the Muslim community. She advocated for the expansion of SNAP benefits, paid family leave and child nutrition through the women’s advocacy organization MomsRising. But a mentor of hers several years ago encouraged her to look for a niche where she can have the most impact.
“My leverage is in the Muslim community, sharing the needs of the Muslim community,” Gurnah said. “I can be a voice for my community who don’t know they can have these conversations.”
Middletown resident and folk musician Rani Arbo met Gurnah when their sons were classmates at a private school and Gurnah took on the role of ambassador to welcome them as a new family.
Arbo said that after a while she understood that Gurnah had been an outsider for most of her life, and that making new students and families feel welcome at the school is in the same spirit as the work she does on behalf of the Muslim community.
“She’s an incredibly approachable person,” Arbo said. “She’s fiercely loyal and respectful of people who are on a different side of an issue as her. There’s something about that personality type that’s willing to look at all people, that we’re all in the same boat and we have to find a way.”
Arbo said Gurnah brings the “same level of welcome, generosity and ideals” whether she’s visiting friends or speaking to top White House officials about sensitive cultural topics.
“I’m so proud of her that she’s been able to act at the national level,” Arbo said. “She has this really inclusive, moderate language but she is also willing to go out on a limb for people. She’s brave, she’s strong, she’s passionate and she’s open.”
Gurnah said she believes her work will help Muslims follow in the footsteps of other ethnic and immigrant groups who have been discriminated against, vilified and overlooked but eventually became an accepted part of the rich American mosaic.
“I’ve seen countries crumble because of their inability to see humanity in other people,” Gurnah said. “I don’t see anything like Rwanda happening here, but I don’t see any good coming out of dehumanizing the other, and I’m the other.”