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Rebuilding a Chicago neighborhood by forging connections to the Muslim community

June 23, 2017 at 6:35 PM EDT
The South Side of Chicago has long been plagued with some of the highest crime rates in the nation, but a man of faith is trying to transform the area by focusing on the everyday needs of those who live there. Jeffrey Brown visits the neighborhood with Rami Nashashibi, founder of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, to see how his efforts are improving health and well-being.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: But first: The South Side of Chicago has long been plagued with some of the highest crime rates in the nation, but one man is trying to transform this area by focusing on the everyday needs and the health of those who live there.

Jeffrey Brown has our story.

JEFFREY BROWN: Along this stretch on Chicago’s South Side, Rami Nashashibi is a familiar face. He’s the founder of the nonprofit IMAN, the Inner-City Muslim Action Network. And for more than 20 years, he’s focused on the root problems these neighborhoods face.

RAMI NASHASHIBI, Founder, Inner-City Muslim Action Network: So, violence, poverty, lack of real meaningful job opportunities, lots of young people with very few meaningful trajectories. This set of blocks was ravaged by the foreclosure crisis.

JEFFREY BROWN: Nashashibi grew up the son of a Jordanian diplomat. He first came to the U.S. for college, and later got a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Chicago.

He started IMAN in 1997 to help bridge divides he saw here between Muslim immigrants and African-Americans. The organization has grown ever since, and now has an annual budget of nearly $4 million, with funding from a mix of grants and private donations.

This is social activism, he says, grounded in faith.

RAMI NASHASHIBI: We have been unapologetically rooted in the values and spiritual tradition that comes from the Muslim community, while, at the same time, acknowledging that so much of that is also very universal.

JEFFREY BROWN: One major focus of the organization now, neighborhood corner stores, the small shops that many here rely on, in the absence of supermarkets in these neighborhoods, but also places that have historically generated tensions between the Arab immigrants who own them, and their African-Americans customers.

IMAN is trying to change that.

RAMI NASHASHIBI: That corner store doesn’t have to be what many corner stores in Chicago are, often a place of death, not a spot that you really want to go into, that we could radically re-imagine it.

JEFFREY BROWN: At the Morgan Mini Mart in Englewood, store owner Sami Deffala, who immigrated from Palestine, is one of 60 store owners in the area who have signed onto IMAN’s corner store campaign.

SAMI DEFFALA, Owner, Morgan Mini Mart: We have been in the neighborhood for 27 years.

JEFFREY BROWN: The idea is to bring everyone together around a common need: fresh and more healthy food.

SAMI DEFFALA: We have stepped it up. With their help, we have been able to acquire fruits and vegetables that are subsidized, a lot lower price, and, in turn, we sell them at a lot lower price. So, that way, it’s a win-win, right?

JEFFREY BROWN: And it’s much needed, says IMAN’s Shamar Hemphill.

SHAMAR HEMPHILL, Organizing Director, Inner-City Muslim Action Network: You know, it’s a war on nutrition that’s constantly killing a lot of communities. Black men die at higher rates, contributed to their diet, right? How you going to change anything in your neighborhood if you really can’t start with the place that really sustains the neighborhood? And that’s the food.

JEFFREY BROWN: Sami Deffala says, in the process, a new trust has emerged between him and his customers.

SAMI DEFFALA: People talk. People in the community talk. Hey, listen, that guy is a good guy there, you know? You don’t want to go in there and do him any harm or any wrong.

JEFFREY BROWN: Just a few blocks away, IMAN also operates a free health clinic. Here, physician’s assistant Muna Odeh, whose family immigrated from Palestine, treats many like 58-year-old Jerome Reynolds, a diabetic without insurance.

MUNA ODEH, Physician’s Assistant, Inner-City Muslim Action Network: People who are underserved and often forgotten. And a lot of times, they feel that they are not in control of their situation, and not in control of their health, because of their limited access to funds and insurance and things like that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Here, too, there’s an emphasis on making better food choices. And there’s another benefit to this interaction, Muna Odeh says, a better understanding of Muslim Americans.

MUNA ODEH: All they know is what they see on TV. And, obviously, that’s not ever painted in the best light. That’s especially important for me, being a Muslim female who’s covered, who wears a hijab. It shows them that we are the same, that our struggles are all the same.

JEFFREY BROWN: Dr. Angela Odoms-Young, a professor of nutrition at the University of Illinois-Chicago, is studying IMAN’s work. She sees positive results.

DR. ANGELA ODOMS-YOUNG, University of Illinois-Chicago: Traditionally, we used to focus on individuals. Can you make a good decision when it comes to healthy eating? We now know, from a research perspective, that community matters. It’s really important that you have access to fruits and vegetables, not just what you can do as an individual.

JEFFREY BROWN: Odoms-Young says that IMAN is helping to break a long-held myth that residents of low-income communities simply don’t want healthier food.

DR. ANGELA ODOMS-YOUNG: There’s many people in low-income communities and communities of color that they are very interested in having access to healthy food options. But one of the big problems is the structural barriers.

JEFFREY BROWN: Another structural barrier being tackled here, finding jobs for men like Khalid Partee, a former gang member and drug dealer.

KHALID PARTEE,  Inner-City Muslim Action Network:  I did 14 years in federal prison.

JEFFREY BROWN: After his release, Partee earned a technical degree in heating and air conditioning ventilation.

KHALID PARTEE: I graduated in a year-and-a-half at the top of my class.

JEFFREY BROWN: He credits Nashashibi with helping to turn around his life and now teaches construction skills to men recently released from prison.

It’s part of IMAN’s reentry program designed that was provide both jobs and to fix up abandoned homes in the neighborhood.

KHALID PARTEE: When these guys come out of prison, if we can try to get them a trade quickly or get them accustomed to being in a working condition, getting up in the morning and coming to class and getting up, going to work, you start making better decisions. You top taking less chances, because you have responsibility. You have got more people that rely on you now.

JEFFREY BROWN: For Rami Nashashibi, it’s all part of meeting the needs of residents in these often-neglected neighborhoods. But even after 20 years, he admits that far more work is needed.

RAMI NASHASHIBI: You know, for every one person you’re able to employ, there’s 50 that are looking for jobs. For every block that you stabilize, there’s the sense that there’s 25, 35 blocks that need that exact same intervention.

JEFFREY BROWN: Undaunted, IMAN is actually expanding. It’s opened a new center in Atlanta, and hopes to work to other cities around the nation.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Jeffrey Brown in Chicago.

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