The first reaction Aisha Hollyer gets when she says she is in the field of social work, “MashaAllah! It must be so good to work with the less fortunate; you must feel so fulfilled, and it must be such a good reminder!” It is, she writes, so much more complicated.
“Anze! Anze!” (Miss, Miss!)
He couldn’t have been more than ten or eleven years old, and unhealthily slender. Although his bright green eyes were dimmed by dark circles, they transmitted their emotions to me, loud and clear.
It was the end of March, the day of an ice storm, and my work had sent me from the settlement office to the hotel where the Syrian refugees were placed until permanent housing could be found for them. Since the storm had closed the schools, my coworkers and I were taking over the job of taking care of the hundred or so children living there.
“Pleease, Anze! Pleeease!”
I felt like crying as I reached out and touched his cheek. The tiny toy car he was clutching wouldn’t have been something a Canadian boy would have looked twice at, but boy was begging me to let him take it, he didn’t have any other toys.
Haltingly, I explained to him that this roomful of toys was a temporary program in the hotel, for the children to play in until they moved out, but that he could come back every day and play with it here.
That day, my heart broke.
Muslim Social Work – It Comes With A Price
Although I did choose to enter the field because I wanted more than monetary compensation out of my career, it wasn’t long before I realized that any sort of fulfillment—or indeed, even any sense of feeling closer to Allah and your purpose in life—did come with a price. My journey through the field of social work, although just begun, was quite an eye-opener, and there were some extremely important lessons I learned from them. Here are just a few:
Lesson 1: Intentions are Still Important
Even an environment of social service can quickly look very superficial and corporate. If you’re not careful, it can become just another cycle of working for a salary, trying hard to impress your coworkers or manager, gossiping about clients, or revelling in the feeling of power you will likely have. In fact, being in power positions, or privy to sensitive information, can even reveal some of the darker sides of your ego (nafs) that you didn’t notice before.
What I learned: Being in the act of helping others, whether directly or indirectly, does not automatically make one a better Muslim; in fact, one of the shaytan’s traps is to disguise something evil as something good. Renewing your intention daily or even several times a day, along with heartfelt prayers for sincerity and acceptance, should become routine in order not to fall into those traps.
Lesson Two: Ransack Your Relationships
Put simply, being in the field of social work propels you to a different plane of reality. All of a sudden, you’re witnessing poverty, hunger, homelessness, and trafficking—not only on a global level, but right in your own backyard. You lose the ability to care for the things you used to, while discovering several areas of concern and abilities that you never knew you had.
Now all of a sudden, going to Starbucks with friends represents the equivalent of a full day’s food supply for someone you know. Talking about clothes and shoes is not just pointless, but absurd, because you know people who don’t have that luxury. And the shows and vlogs that your friends follow are now little slices of the carefree life that you’ll never be able to have, embedded as they are in emotions and values you only distantly remember understanding.
What I learned: If Allah has chosen that type of life for a person, then it is nothing but a blessing. If He had meant for someone to help people, then of course He would give them the tools and knowledge necessary to do that. The opinions of other shouldn’t matter.
It was important to appreciate the situation Allah had put me in. Alhamdulillah, it wasn’t long before I was able to be content, and realize the blessings of being on constant “dose of reality” mode. It made me much more grateful for the blessings in my life. It gave me an appreciation for the struggles of others. Most importantly, it got me to focus on more important things, rather than just the superficial things some of my peers were involved with.
Lesson Three: Deal With the Disconnect
Even after overcoming that last hurdle, there is another factor to be considered for a Muslim, or anyone who considers social work a vital part of their spiritual practice; the fact that they may not find anyone to give them the help they need.
On one hand, I had friends who were Muslim and whom I could relate with in terms of my religious beliefs and spiritual practices. When I was down or upset, they knew how to remind me and bring me back up. However, after I got into social work, they couldn’t really go in too deep, because the types of things I’d need to talk about would either depress them, or they were weren’t used to hearing about some of the issues prevalent in our society.
On the other hand, I had friends, mostly classmates, who were completely nonreligous, swore profusely, and had certain other unfortunate habits. However, they were extremely concerned for the wellbeing of other people, and went to great lengths to be involved in the good, such as working against poverty or discrimination. In fact, I heard more “ISIS does not represent true Islam” arguments from them than I had heard from the Muslim community! Although heartening at times, it was easy to experience feelings of disconnect from everybody; never truly having a person to turn to.
What I learned: Put simply, you can never depend on people. Whether it be a best friend, a family member, or even a spouse, it’s not healthy to rely on them for your emotional, mental, or spiritual wellbeing. If you do, you will be sorely disappointed, because people aren’t perfect and so any relationship with them cannot be perfection.
For me, moments of isolation have a way of bringing certain things to realization—things I would never have discovered otherwise. They are blessings in disguise, forging a connection through pain that could never have been borne from blissful ignorance.
Also, no matter how dark it seems, you will never be left without hope if you keep in mind that, “Verily, after hardship comes ease.”
Two months later…
The boy walking towards me looked vaguely familiar. He couldn’t have been more than ten or eleven years old, with a slender yet healthy frame and bright, eager green eyes.
I felt like crying as I swept him off the sidewalk into a giant hug, holding on for a long time. I could hardly believe that this was the same boy I’d dealt with, a short time ago.
I finally put him back down to meet the smiling eyes of his mother and a few siblings. She hugged me, and again I could barely contain the emotion inside me, from seeing them so well and happy after all they’d been through.
After exchanging pleasantries, like where they were living and how they liked it, she invited me to drop in to visit them anytime, repeating the address several times till I got it.
That day, my heart healed.
That moment was truly a gift from God. It helped me realize that Allah is truly the Most Merciful, that desperation is never valid, and that He will, inshaAllah, make things better.
Resources for Seekers
- Seven Counsels for Successful Service and Activism
- Muslim Communal Obligation: Stories That Will Have You In Tears
- VIDEO: Activism & Social Change – Prophetic Principles for Transformative Community Service
- Service – A powerful khutbah from Imam Zaid Shakir
- The Force of Faith
- The Blessing of a Muslim Doula
- Five Steps to Achieving True Brotherhood – Habib Ali al-Jifri
- Interview with One of Egypt’s Neglected Poor