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Muslim Homeless Shelter Opens for Women and Children

The Amal Women’s Center is Boston’s first Muslim-run homeless shelter for women and children, a place where Muslim women who have fallen on hard times may feel especially at home.

The shingled Victorian house on Intervale Street has a purple door, a symbol of hope. The Basmala — a phrase recited when reading the Koran, “In the name of God, the most gracious, the most merciful” — decorates a wall in the foyer. In the children’s playroom, “My First Prophet Muhammad Storybook” shares space with “Guess Who, Elmo!”

The Amal (Arabic for “hope”) Women’s Center is Boston’s first Muslim-run homeless shelter for women and children, a place where Muslim women who have fallen on hard times may feel especially at home.

“We really wanted to provide a space that gives women the opportunity to heal, to feel respected, to preserve their dignity, and to give them the opportunity to develop themselves,” said Malika MacDonald, the national director of the nonprofit organization overseeing the shelter.

The shelter, which quietly opened its doors last week in advance of an official celebration this weekend, will house up to 12 women and children, normally for six months or less. It is open to women of all faiths, but its sensibility is distinctly Muslim.

The kitchen does not adhere to strict religious dietary guidelines, but pork, which is forbidden in Islam, is not allowed. Islamic art and calligraphy grace the walls. Staff members and many of the guests wear hijabs.

MacDonald’s organization, the Islamic Circle of North America Relief USA’s Transitional Housing Network, secured a 10-year lease from the Masjid al-Qur’aan mosque, which owns the property and sits next door. Originally affiliated with the Nation of Islam, the mosque has been a Sunni community for decades.

The Amal Women’s Center is not equipped to handle more complex security issues confronting women fleeing domestic violence, or to address the health needs of the severely mentally ill, MacDonald said. But it aims to offer weekly counseling and other services to help women find steady work and stable housing.

Aliyah Banister, a licensed clinical therapist who will offer weekly counseling sessions, said that as a counselor at a similar shelter in Chicago, she found that homeless Muslim women find it a relief to not have to explain or defend religious practices such as wearing a headscarf in the presence of men who are not relatives.

“When you’re going through something, it’s hard to have to explain, ‘These are my needs, this is what my cultural background is,’ ” she said.

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