We’re all probably familiar with the efforts of Islamic charities who run orphan sponsorship programmes; but for many Muslims, the aid starts and ends there. We’re also aware that there are children being removed from their homes and placed into the foster care system, but some likely don’t realize that a proportion of these children actually come from Muslim families. The reality, however, is that there is a shortage of Muslim foster parents to provide these refugee and domestic foster children with Muslim homes. As a result, most of these children end up in homes of other faiths and have great difficulty retaining their Islamic identity.
The Muslim Foster Care Association (MFCA) was founded in 2016 by 2 Muslim foster parents, Ranya Shbeib and Sameena Zahoor to address this reality. MFCA works to provide services for these children, educate and support their foster families, and encourage the Muslim community to fulfil the Sunnah of caring for orphans, by becoming a licensed foster parent.
We spoke with the co-founders of MFCA and asked them a few questions that set the current scene and further expounded on how important it is for Muslims to be leading the efforts of foster care.
Could we start by having you both tell me a bit about yourselves?
Ranya: “When my husband and I first started fostering three years ago, we realized the resources and support we needed didn’t exist in our Muslim community to help us through this journey. We struggled to find someone with firsthand experience that we could turn to. A mutual friend connected me with another licensed Muslim foster parent locally, Sameena Zahoor [co-founder]. Sameena and I became each other's support. During this time, the topic of foster care became more popular. Many people started to direct their questions to us. It was through this experience that we realized we needed a nonprofit organization to help raise awareness and to network with other nonprofits and support the families that are fostering and the kids that are in the system. We realized we had firsthand experience that others could benefit from. Agencies and organizations were contacting us for information because although they had been working in foster care, they just didn't have the experience that we were able to provide.”
Sameena: “I’m a working family physician and live with my husband and 3 boys in Michigan. My husband and I have lived in MI for over 30 years and love our Muslim community that we are both active in. Our family became licensed for domestic foster care in 2011, and our first foster son came home in 2012, just two hours after accepting the placement over the phone. Our 5 1/2yr old foster son literally came into our home with only the clothes on his back, a small back-pack with some toys the agency gave him, an extra pair of pants, and a small blanket. Even though we have 3 boys of our own, we learned very quickly that foster parenting was not going to be like parenting our own children. As Ranya said, we found each other in 2015 when we were looking for other Muslim foster families for support and advice, and we have been good friends ever since. Our mutual desire to improve the lives of Muslim foster children led to us working together professionally, to establish MFCA in 2016.”
Is there an Islamic aspect to what your nonprofit does?
Ranya : “Yes. We're able to fill in that gap that some of the foster care agencies haven't been able to fill within the Muslim community. We're able to create that bridge within the Muslim community. We're able to communicate with agencies and let them know what the specific needs of Muslim foster children may be. For example, when it's Eid, we have a campaign where we provide Muslim foster children with Eid gifts. We also have a program that we started where if a Muslim foster child is matched with a Muslim family to celebrate Eid with. Providing that connection to Islam for the child and for the family caring for the child. It may even be just answering simple questions for families of other faiths that are fostering Muslim children, such as explaining to them, the hijab or explaining salah to them or things like that.“
Sameena : "Absolutely! The establishment of the Muslim Foster Care Association was inspired by the hadith where the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) is reported to have said that “I and the one who cares for an orphan will be in Paradise like these two” (holding up His two forefingers). It is in fact currently the quote that headlines our website home page."
In addition to that, our Mission statement clearly states the Islamic centre of our non-profit:
“To answer the call of our faith in caring for orphans, by improving the lives of foster children and supporting the foster families who care for them, through community education, support networks, and advocacy.”
Given your experience, what are the different reasons that a Muslim couple, or a Muslim, would foster? What was your reasoning?
Ranya: “My intention, and the main driving force for me, was I realised that there's such a shortage of licensed foster homes and then there's even more of a shortage of Muslim licensed foster homes. Undoubtedly there are Muslim children in the foster care system and the vast majority of them are with families of other faiths. That's not to say that they're not with good families. I'm sure they're with wonderful families, but are they losing that connection with their faith? I felt an obligation to the greater good of caring for children that need a home. I'm a Muslim that can provide a home for children that need a Muslim home. I really felt compelled that these children are no different than my own children. And I really felt that I had an obligation. I had no excuse not to provide a home for them.”
Sameena : “In 2011, My husband and I attended a masjid presentation about foster care help by Muslim Family Services, a long-standing social services organisation in Detroit. We were so surprised to hear about the growing number of Muslim foster children entering the system, and even more concerned when we heard that the number far outweighed the number of licensed Muslim families to place them in. As a result, the majority of Muslim foster children were being placed in homes of other faiths. So, even though we had 3 children of our own, and both were working, we couldn’t let ourselves turn away from this fard kafaaya (communal obligation) for these children.”
Why do you think there is a shortage of Muslim foster parents?
Ranya : “It's interesting because fostering is really part of our faith tradition. It’s a part of the Sunnah. People have moved away from it and now to try to bring them back to it, I think it's going to take a change in mindset. Fostering changes your lifestyle and changes your family dynamics. People need to go into fostering knowing that there are going to be changes and challenges, but in the end, InshaAllah, the reward is just tremendous.”
Sameena : “I think because people are busy with life, work, their own families. Most Muslim families probably don’t even realise that these children exist. Those that do become aware, probably feel it’s someone else’s responsibility, worry that these children are too hard to care for, and perhaps don’t feel qualified to become foster parents. The truth is, as Ranya said, this is a communal responsibility. You don’t have to be a perfect parent to be a foster parent, just care enough to try.”
Would you say there's a difference between foster care in the secular sense and Islamically?
Ranya : “Not so much. In both the goal is really doing good for humanity and taking care of a very vulnerable population, children. That is the goal.”
Sameena: “Fostering is very much in line with the Islamic sense of the word. As a foster parent, you are providing a temporary guardianship over children that have no qualified parents or guardians to care for them. Of course, there is the added consideration of non-mahram interactions with them once they hit puberty. However, these rules for having them in your home are no different than if you were to have your extended families’ or friends’ older kids stay with you, and I know plenty of joint families that live together.”
So what are some serious challenges that a would-be foster parents should consider when thinking about fostering?
Ranya : “If you have birth children, the biggest challenge is having your children adjust to the change. As adults we see the bigger picture and we understand inshaAllah what the reward is. However, this is difficult to explain to children and is more difficult for them to comprehend, especially when they don't see other families in the Muslim community fostering. Other challenges I would say is really the time commitment. Fostering really is a time commitment. “
Sameena : “I agree with Ranya, that the additional time commitment and unpredictable adjustment of your own biological children to the foster child are the biggest considerations prior to fostering. With that being said, the support of family and friends and faith in Allah SWT can really help that transition period go more smoothly than you initially think.”
Could you expand on that?
Ranya : “Sure. Every child needs care and attention. Foster children especially need care and attention. They've all experienced some level of trauma. There are also regular visits and appointments with caseworkers, possibly lawyers and birth parents. There may be extra doctor appointments and therapy appointments. Foster children require even more time and care."
Sameena : “The extra time you have to initially give your foster child, can take away time from your other kids. If they are very young, they may not understand why you have to take care of some else’s child, and sometimes jealousy can naturally arise. Just as with your own children, some of them get along better with each other than others, and that doesn’t change when a foster child comes into your home. Some of my kids became very close with some, and others did not, it’s not always in your hands, so it’s best not to expect perfection. It is, however, ultimately an important lesson you are teaching your children by example, and hopefully will have a positive impact on them when they themselves become adults inshaAllah."
Focusing on the positive for a second, what are some highlights that would-be foster parents should consider when thinking about adoption or fostering?
Ranya : “It's incredibly rewarding. InshaAllah, other than the reward that we are promised in the afterlife, there are the rewards that you can see here, when you see the foster child growing and progressing and benefiting. That alone is very rewarding to see that positive change in them once they're provided stability and a loving home and the support that they need. There are also rewards I see in my birth children. For them to have this eye-opening, firsthand experience of how other children in the world live. I firmly believe that fostering is an experience that will make my children more globally minded. And it’ll build their character. As they grow up, they'll have stronger character and make them more compassionate people. Our first fostering experience was with my refugee foster daughter who was from Somalia and she lived with us for two and a half years. For my kids to see a child that grew up in a refugee camp that came to this country and was learning the language and learning the culture is incredibly valuable. To know that the life that other children lead around the world is very different than the very comfortable life that my children have lead.”
Sameena : “Our children are privileged, and have no idea what challenges many kids are dealing with. Fostering gives these children and their stories a face and a reality you can’t hide from. Learning to live with people from different socioeconomic/ethnic/life experience backgrounds is a challenge as well as a positive skill that fostering can bring about. While you’re going through the experience you don’t see many of the positives, until you step back and see how far your foster child has come by way of their academic progress, health, self-esteem, and understanding of his/her faith, SubhanAllah!"
From your experience in foster care, do you see more foster parents fostering children domestically or abroad? Including refugees.
Ranya : “So there are only 22 cities in the US that have services and agencies with the refugee foster care program. We're very fortunate here that there are two cities in Michigan that have refugee foster care programs. There are some people that are very interested in refugee foster care, but depending on where they live, their only option may be domestic foster care. There are pretty significant differences between refugee and domestic. One of the main differences is that refugee foster children are usually older teenagers. They are coming from another country, so they have to learn the language and learn the new culture. With domestic foster children, the goal is always reunification with their birth parents, whereas the refugee foster children, their birth parents are either deemed missing or deceased.”
Sameena : “The awareness is slowly increasing in the Muslim community about foster care. As more families become licensed, foster and support one another, the experience will only become more positive and encourage others to do the same, inshaAllah.”
Why is there a shortage of refugee fostering agencies?
Ranya : “There's always a list of refugee foster children that are waiting to be matched with a licensed home in the US. Even once they're approved, they stay in the refugee camp of the country that they're in until they can be matched with a licensed home. Why is there a shortage of licensed homes? Why even in the Muslim community, although this is part of our sunnah, why is there a shortage of licensed Muslim homes? My very frank answer is I think people aren't ready to sacrifice their very comfortable lives. I think our Muslim community is very good at supporting things financially and making donations but when we ask people to give up their time and to welcome somebody into their home -That's a very difficult thing for many people.”
Is this something that your nonprofit also advocates for?
Ranya : “Yes, we do try to raise awareness and encourage people to become licensed because essentially what we need is more families licensed since there is such a shortage. Part of our goal is making sure that those families, once they are licensed, don't burn out and that we support them.”
Sameena : “Increasing awareness and encouraging more Muslim families to become licensed foster parents is just one part of MFCA’s goals. We want to make sure that our focus, however, remains supporting Muslim foster children and the families that care for them.”
What kind of resources do you have available to new or future foster parents?
Ranya : If they have any specific requests, we try to meet those requests. When a Muslim child first enters the foster care system, we hope to be notified so that we can give them what's called a ‘Welcome package’. This package contains some personal hygiene items, as well as some faith-based items like a Quran, prayer rug, hijab for the girls and even some information about MFCA so that the child can continue to be connected with us. We know that the majority of foster kids will be with families of other faiths. We want to make sure we are also supporting the families that care for the children.
One of the programs that we've coordinated recently, with another local nonprofit is a car donation program. We are trying to collect donated cars so that we can hopefully match foster children that are going into independent living, with a car to help them out with transportation.”
Can you walk me through the process of becoming a licensed foster parent?
Ranya : “Sure. The very first step to becoming licensed is attending an orientation at a local foster care agency. Orientations are about two hours long and if a person is married then both they and their spouse are required to attend. After attending an orientation, the application process starts. The rest of the process entails home visits, interviews, background checks and training. Training entails attending different workshops to prepare a prospective foster parent with what to expect with fostering. The entire licensing process takes between three to six months. For my family, it took us three months because we were pretty motivated and were able to get through the process fairly quickly.”
What does the future look like to you, what's the vision here?
Ranya : “We have had so much interest from different nonprofits, from families that are licensed, families that want to become licensed, and even interest out of state. We know that there's definitely a gap that we need to fill, and it's happening very quickly. Our biggest challenge is trying to meet that level of demand. Because we are a new nonprofit, we are still trying to build our foundation and increase our manpower to meet this demand. We do know for certain that there is a need for our organization and our vision is every child in foster care, not just the Muslim children, is in a safe, loving, stable home where their needs can be met. We believe Muslim communities should be at the forefront of this. We should be the ones leading this. This is part of our Sunnah and right now it kind of seems like we're still late to the game. We're still trying to catch up with things. There is a lot of work to be done.”
Sameena : “As Ranya stated, our mission and vision are very clearly stated on our website. We have both been encouraged by the interest in MFCA from our local communities, as well as through inquiries from other states. We are hoping to build on the momentum of interest in foster care, and increase our capacity as an organisation. We hope to eventually not only provide tangible help and support to local Muslim foster children and their families but position ourselves to advocate for them and their unique needs to private and government foster care agencies, inshaAllah. Our hope and faith are ultimately in Allah SWT to put barakah in our efforts and provide us with the funding necessary through our Muslim communities to fulfil this communal responsibility. As Ranya accurately stated, we are late to the table and we need all hands and dollars on deck to get the work done, inshaAllah!”
Thank you to Ranya and Sameena for taking the time out to talk to us about MFCA and the amazing work they're doing. Help support MFCA by checking out their website and considering becoming a foster parent yourself.
Stay up to date with all of their work by following them on social media.
Header Photo by Charlein Gracia
Author: Momina Tashfeen
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