'Day of Dignity' in Detroit served with empathy

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Detroit — They came by foot, if they lived nearby and were physically able. They came by bus, if they were not. But one way or another, around 2,000 people, most of whom were poor or homeless, arrived Saturday to Detroit's Muslim Center Mosque and Community Center for a “day of dignity” meant to uplift both giver and receiver.

What they found was empathy. 

Volunteers Sarah Edlibi, left, of Bloomfield Hills, and Maerna Kersha, center, both 24, of West Bloomfield, hand out personal hygiene kits.


“Our intention is to serve,” volunteer Saad Rehman, 26, said. “Poverty is not due to a lack of morality.”

Added volunteer Hana Alasry, 22: “These issues are systemic.”

The two, members of the Detroit chapter of the Muslim American Society, had the task of training an army of about 100 volunteers on how to interact with attendees.

Due to “past experience” and “feedback” from previous years, Alasry and Rehman explained that sometimes volunteers could be “rude or dismissive, or overcompensate” when handing out donations. This, Rehman said, may be because of ignorance or one’s beliefs about poverty.

Maurice White, 61, carries his niece, Essence Karriem, 17 months old, both of Detroit, as he looks for clothing items.


Inside the prayer room at the mosque, the volunteers formed a straight line. Based on whether they met one of the almost two-dozen criteria – “Were you born an American citizen? Are you disabled or know someone who is?” – had them taking a step forward or backward.

By the end, no one was in the same place where they’d started. Some had moved forward. Several had moved backward.

“Was any of this due to anything you’d done as a person?” Alasry asked the group. They shook their heads no. “That’s part of the reason we can’t ever look down at someone we’re meant to help.”

That training, said Taqwa Almasmari, 15, of Hamtramck, “made me realize some things” she’d overlooked earlier in the day. For example, some fellow volunteers had complemented visitors’ clothes or appearances not out of sincerity, but out of nerves. The goal was to overcome that and to meet people on a human level.

Women look through items of clothing during the Day of Dignity.


Imam Mika’il Stewart Saadiq, leader of the Muslim Center Mosque, said the event offers dignity for the helper, as much as it does people who benefit from the donations and the health screenings.

The mosque’s neighbor across the street, the Huda Clinic, sent eight volunteers to do offer blood pressure checks, eye exams and weigh ins.

Huda volunteer Uniaza Abrar, of Sterling Heights, has been helping at the clinic for most of her adult life, and she says she views the Day of Dignity as a chance to expand the clinic’s footprint – even if it’s just across the street.

The clinic’s services, including prescription fulfillment, are free. Dentists, optometrists, podiatrists and medical experts in a number of specialties including mental health, contribute care. Patients who need to see a doctor can do so free of charge.

But getting the word out is the real challenge, says Abrar.

“A lot of people don’t even know what we do,” the 22-year-old said. “People always think there’s a catch to it, but there isn’t.”

Tony Henderson, left, 50, of Warren, assists with male clothing items as he wears a Thobe, which is traditional Sunnah clothing, much like clothing believed to be worn by the Prophet Muhammad.


Lottie Barker-Usoro, 66, came to Day of Dignity on a bus that picked her up at Bethany Manor, on 14th Street, and would drop her off afterward. She arrived just after the first group of volunteers had completed its empathy training.

“This has been wonderful, and is well-appreciated,” Barker-Usoro said. Some bags of donations contained food that would help her get through the weekend. Others contained clothes to help get through the upcoming winter. She said she found the staff helpful and kind.

“They’re all real polite, good people,” she said.

Kyle Cooper, 59, comes to the mosque every Saturday, from about a half-mile away.

“The food here is great,” he said.

He stuck to his routine, but this time left with a culinary challenge he hadn’t expected – lamb. One of the volunteers explained how to cook it. If all goes well, he said, it will be dinner on Sunday.

Cooper also took advantage of the Huda health screenings, and learned his blood pressure was just a little high. A volunteer told him one big thing he could do is stop smoking cigarettes. He’ll consider it.

“This is my life and I only get one,” Cooper said.