Metro Detroit nonprofit founder a finalist for CNN Hero of the Year

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

In multiple languages, the word “Zaman” means time.

It is an apt name for the nonprofit Metro Detroit native Najah Bazzy launched more than 15 years ago to help the region’s poorest women and children.

A nurse long accustomed to responding in crises, she strives to dedicate as many hours and days as possible to advance Zaman International’s mission and improve the lives of residents struggling for basics.

That means pushing programs tailored to meeting clients’ needs — from hot meals to boosting literacy skills or finding winter-wear — as well as steer them to a better life.

“It’s important people have hope in this world. We’re up against some tough times right now,” Bazzy told The Detroit News. “I believe Zaman is a beacon of hope.”

That focus has elevated her and Inkster-based Zaman International to a global platform. This year, Bazzy was named among the Top 10 CNN Heroes of 2019 — men and women recognized for their efforts to change the world.

Each finalist receives $10,000 as well as free capacity-building training from the Annenberg Foundation, which supports nonprofits worldwide, officials said.

On Sunday, she competed for the top prize — “Hero of the Year” plus an additional $100,000 — during a ceremony airing live from the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. The winner is selected through online voting that ended this week.

"I have stood on many stages before, but none quite like this," she told the audience in New York City in the lead-up to the announcement of the top winner.

"There is a universe that exists in each of us, and we are at the peak of grace when we provide for basic human needs."

Through the unprecedented exposure, Zaman is receiving thousands of dollars in extra donations online — a windfall Bazzy and her colleagues plan to use to expand the group’s services and reach to meet growing demand for aid.

“I hope the recognition will help us overcome these challenges and land these families in a place of stability,” she said. “I think it is really going to put Zaman in a very special place to complete its vision.” 

Zaman’s origins are tied to that quest.

In 1996, Bazzy — a Muslim and transcultural clinical nurse specialist who grew up in Wayne County and has spent 40 years in the medical field — helped an immigrant couple with a baby son who was dying. During a home visit, she learned the parents were so indigent they couldn’t afford a refrigerator. Their child slept in a towel-filled basket, under a single blanket.

“I was devastated,” Bazzy said. “That’s the first time I saw stark poverty in Detroit.”

Bazzy immediately collected furniture and other items to donate. Later, after the infant died, she raised money for a burial. 

Determined to ensure other families found aid in desperate times, she started rallying the community to gather goods for anyone needing them.

Those seeds bloomed into Zaman, which officially became a nonprofit in 2004 and was previously headquartered in Dearborn.

It embraced initiatives such as an urgent needs program providing food, clothing, medications and shelter. After moving to its 40,500-square-foot Hope for Humanity Center in 2016, Zaman launched a Good Deeds resale shop where clients who typically earn less than $12,000 a year find free fare.

The nonprofit is also committed to combating hunger, working with Gleaners Community Food Bank to open a client-choice pantry and joining the United Way for Southeastern Michigan to distribute meals to youths through a summer program.

Zaman, which relies on grants and contributions, has had sizable impact. Last year the nonprofit distributed 170,400 pounds of food, collected 886,950 pounds of clothing as well as doled out 268 winter coats and 895 school supply-filled backpacks to children, officials said.

Viola Sankey goes through the numerous boxes of bags of clothing donations at Zaman International.

As word about the group’s work spread over the years and clients sought Zaman services, Bazzy remained a constant presence in the facility and out — greeting young visitors and comforting mothers worried about their next steps.

“I’ve seen how she approaches everything with love,” said Rola Jordan of Novi, who started volunteering there in 2013. “You feel like the world is still a good place because there are people who do good and want to pay it forward. It really gives me hope.”

Under Bazzy’s leadership, Zaman has branched out to fill other roles both locally and abroad.

Partnerships with the International Medical Corps as well as other organizations have led to funding relief projects aimed at securing safe water and humanitarian aid for thousands of people in countries such as Yemen and Somalia, Zaman officials reported.

For years, Metro Detroiters have found a new path through Zaman’s Building Ongoing Opportunities through Skills Training, or B.O.O.S.T., program, which focuses on giving marginalized women tools to become more independent, from English literacy to driver’s education and GED training.

Two newer additions have also offered attendees a chance at finding a new calling. 

A sewing program teaches the finer points of quilting, alterations, custom tailoring and pattern-making. Meanwhile, there’s culinary arts training in a commercial kitchen that also offers classes, according to the website.

Both were godsends to Sheri Blanton, a former client who signed up after turning to Zaman last year for food and clothing. The Taylor resident had separated from her husband and was battling health issues that prevented full-time work to provide for their daughter.

Today, Blanton is adept at crafting hats and purses while fielding catering orders as a Zaman kitchen apprentice each week. She hopes to become a chef — a goal the mother believes was unattainable before the programs.

“I’m in a wonderful place,” Blanton said. “I’m headed somewhere. I’m doing things with my life and I’m excited about it.”

The success, coupled with the CNN honor, has led Bazzy and her staff to mull expanding those efforts so that participants could learn the skills, receive more workforce development then also land a job in the same place, said Monica Boomer, Zaman’s chief impact officer. “We hope to be able to provide that onsite in a place where they already feel comfortable.”

Even in the spotlight that international attention has brought the last few months, Bazzy eyes future collaborations to look beyond those who live above the poverty line but also face strain finding basics.

Her objective? “It is truly about the ability to care for other people and to lift people out of these miserable situations,” she said. “I keep saying goodness begets goodness.”

Bazzy’s dedication marks her as a “true humanitarian,” said Jamele Hage, a longtime friend who submitted the “Hero of the Year” application. “She has an angelic feel to her. She always seeks out people in the worst situations and positions and has a positive impact on them. She’s a compassionate fixer and that’s how she’s known.”