The weather was cold, and hats, jackets, and scarves were seen throughout the crowd. In this crowd was a team called Reaching All HIV+ Muslims In America (RAHMA). RAHMA is an organization based in the DC metro area that addresses HIV/AIDS in the American Muslim community through education, advocacy and empowerment.
As founder of RAHMA, I led the team, passing out RAHMA t-shirts and walking with the RAHMA banner held by our team members. Many participants stopped and stared at the banner, took pictures and asked questions about RAHMA’s work.
It is important that we are raising awareness on HIV and people are taking notice. Muslims living with HIV are hiding in the shadows because stigma is so rampant in our community. HIV is only a virus. Stigma is the deadly disease.
The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) partnered with RAHMA for the walk. Their Events and Outreach coordinator, Lauren Schreiber, passed out CAIR t-shirts to team members with the slogan: “Service is part of my faith.” Sisters Mariam and Khadija Mehter were among RAHMA team members.
“HIV infection rates are at epidemic levels in DC. This event was a good way to raise awareness and get people to feel invested in the cause when they sponsor a participant,” said Mariam, who raised over $350 with the help of family and friends.
As a first time participant, I was happy and proud to be a part of the AIDS Walk to raise awareness and show my support for people courageously living with HIV/AIDS. I know it can't be easy. I also participated because I wanted to show any Muslim who might be living with the disease that our community has members who are eager to support them. As Muslims, we have been instructed to enjoin good and forbid evil. What more good can we do, than raise awareness of a vicious disease whose victims are often undeservingly stigmatized when they most need our support?
Latifah Abdus Salaam traveled all the way from New Jersey to run at the event. “Working on a daily basis with people living with HIV/AIDS,” she said. “I cried with them privately in my office as they expressed their inability to share this affliction with even sometimes close relatives. Depending on which culture they are from and lack of education, it can get worse. I had one patient who appeared on edge, and through translation he expressed that his family kept him isolated in another room, as if he were contagious! Oh Allah, protect us from such ignorance! Ameen! Many Muslims have their heads in the sand at the mere mention of HIV, as if it couldn't happen to them. Not all who come into Islam were born Muslim. Some came into Islam with HIV. Once someone close to me contracted HIV, it became my reality. It was surreal. The tears of my patients struggling with the stigma, the sense of belonging, the feeling of displacement and isolation in an atmosphere of stigma became a shared concern,” explained Salaam. Everyone needs somebody to be there for them, to support and direct them in a confidential manner, explained Salaam.
RAHMA first participated in the AIDS Walk last year. Four members attended. It is great we had a team of eleven this year, but we need more. To end stigma we have to do this together. It takes a village to make a difference. I hope to see at least 25 people participate in AIDS Walk 2014.
The HIV virus has been around for over 30 years and is still affecting communities across the globe, including Muslims. In the USA, both stigma and the number of HIV+ Muslims are on the rise. Very few people in the American Muslim community are discussing HIV and most members are ignorant on the subject. Lack of information about HIV/AIDS, and lack of a safe space to discuss it are a toxic combination. Many members of the community are at risk, and those who do live with HIV often feel isolated.
What can you do to raise awareness in your community?
Invite RAHMA to host a FREE interactive workshop with FREE HIV Testing at your masjid, Muslim Student Association, and/or community event. If you know someone living with HIV, be supportive and non judgmental. By empowering our communities to effectively address HIV, we come ever closer to removing the stigma once and for all.
Want to learn more about RAHMA? Visit www.haverahma.org.