The region’s homelessness crisis no doubt evokes sympathy. But for Nehath Sheriff, a young humanitarian and leader in the Muslim community, the despair in our midst inspired a different reaction, a more useful one. Marshaling resources from her different worlds — her family, faith and intellectual passions — Sheriff has set in motion the first mosque-based community health clinic in Washington state, a nonprofit that provides free or subsidized care to people lacking access to basic health services.
Based off the model of Rainier Valley Community Clinic (RVCC), the new clinic’s emphasis centers on what Sheriff and others call “gentle, slow and culturally relevant care.” Though open to people of all backgrounds, their target demographic is people whose health needs are not appropriately or sufficiently met by mainstream providers for economic and cultural reasons.
“Entering into the health care system in America, in Seattle, [can be] a terrifying and oftentimes demeaning experience,” said Jodilyn Owen, co-founder of RVCC and a mentor of Sheriff. “Having one demeaning experience is enough to convince people that they’re not going to go back again.”
Sheriff, 23, hopes the clinic, situated at the Muslim Association of Puget Sound (MAPS) in Redmond, can fight against that marginalization. Owen admits it’s a small solution amid mammoth problems in the health care system, but providing community-based care by practitioners with first-based knowledge of the families they’re serving can go a long way. The clinic at MAPS, in other words, could represent a new entry point into the system — in some cases for recent newcomers to the United States, in others for people experiencing homelessness — that can offer families the resources and education they need to get, and stay, healthy.
“One of the things about health care is that if you don’t make enough at work and your job doesn’t insure you, then even if you have to go get a physical examination or just a basic check up, you’d be paying huge out of pocket fees just to get these services done,” Sheriff said. “So we wanted these services to be open to individuals who couldn’t necessarily afford it.”
Sheriff’s idea for a community health non-profit began germinating in 2010. Her parents, immigrants from India, encouraged their daughter and her siblings to meet refugees at nearby homeless shelters. They implored her to go beyond the faces, to have real conversations, to get to know their stories. Go out and “be the change,” her parents would say. The interactions helped activate her social conscience, an important existential anchor that, in the coming years, would continue to expand and refine itself as Sheriff pursued a public health degree at the University of Washington.
“After I got to UW, it became even more important to engage myself in the community,” she said. “It’s so easy to become self-contained and want to focus on yourself.”
A common but still complicated tension was emerging for Sheriff. She had to square the fortunes of her life — the privileges of education, support and stability — with the darker misfortunes of others: the Stanford graduate she met at a Bellevue women’s shelter, the homeless man sleeping at the bus stop she frequented. She kept collecting stories, “unbelievable stories that were actually real,” and stored them away in her mind, waiting for the opportunity to put her burgeoning knowledge to good use.
While many become apathetic and cynical in the face of pervasive unfairness and inequality, Sheriff resisted that, instead using these unfortunate facts of life as a motivation.
College offered a productive channel for her curiosity and concern about people often left outside of society’s embrace. She got involved with RVCC. She learned about the health disparities burdening immigrant families and other families of color in South Seattle. She researched community health clinics elsewhere, coming to admire how the philosophy considered “the whole human being” and incorporated an individual’s lifestyle, their cultural background and their families all under one diagnosis.
“It hits close to home,” Sheriff said of immigrant health. “My parents moved here from another country, and I just saw how hard they worked to support us and to allow my siblings and I to live the American Dream. They didn’t leave any stone unturned … And I just wanted to give back to others who didn’t have the opportunity.”
Using RVCC’s model of care as a launching pad, Sheriff brought together the space at the mosque with the volunteer and organizational support of a MAPS-based resource center to bring the clinic to fruition.
During the first clinic on July 17, a cardiologist, internist, naturopathic physician, and an acupuncturist all saw patients — and they were completely booked during the three hours of operation, Sheriff said. Primary care is the clinic’s central function, but through a network of provider partnerships at other hospitals, patients will be able to secure continuing care, at the same subsidized or free cost, for more complicated health problems.
How does it work? Charges are assessed on a sliding scale. Those who can pay some, do. And patients with insurance who use the services can “float” those who are uninsured. Health care providers devoted to the clinic’s philosophy and wish to volunteer will receive malpractice insurance, a requirement to practice medicine, through what’s called the Washington State Volunteer and Retired Providers program.
Come fall, Sheriff will head off to the nation’s capital to pursue a two-year Master’s degree in public health. After that, she’s off to medical school at George Washington University. Samiah Rizvi, an engineer and longtime family friend, will take on clinic-day coordination efforts once Sheriff is gone.
“We’ve already started figuring out ways to improve,” Rizvi said.