More Than Just A Retreat, It’s A Reunion
“The shared space & time together at RAHMA was healing: congregational prayers, sharing meals and learning from each other brought us all closer to each other, closer to our Lord and gave me a deeper acceptance of the journey ahead of us.” - Waheedah Shabazz El
On August 22nd, in the heart of Washington DC, a small group of Muslims gathered together for RAHMA’s 3 day long retreat for HIV+ Muslims. They flew in from as far as the west coast to find a place they could call home. A place without stigma, isolation or fear of being judged.
Topics covered were HIV criminalization, U Equals U, HIV Activism in the Muslim Community, Long Term Survivors and Mental Health, Yoga and Meditation, Sexual Health and Healthy Relationships, Addressing HIV/AIDS in Faith Communities and the Power of Words to Fight HIV Stigma.
In recognition of National Faith HIV & AIDS Awareness Day, the group attended jummah (Friday service) at Masjid Muhammad in DC and partnered with Us Helping Us, a local nonprofit to provide free HIV testing afterwards. Bryan (Harun) Jones, spoke in front of the crowd after prayer, sharing RAHMA’s work, encouraged everyone to get tested and its importance. Some gasps and shocked faces emerged from the crowd when he said:
“If you’re doing more than holding hands, you need to be tested. None of us would be here if it wasn’t for unprotected sex.”
Not every moment was of laughter and joy. There were times when attendees cried, were frustrated, expressed anger and took advantage of opportunities to isolate themselves and gather their thoughts. Some were in a constant battle with the trauma they faced due to their HIV status and struggled.
“If not now, when does the healing begin?” - Shakyh Dr. T.A. Bashir
Two mental health counselors were onsite to assist attendees and provide supportive shoulders as they discussed ways to navigate challenging barriers in life and also explored how to reconcile living with HIV while actively being a part of their faith community.
One participant, who attended RAHMA’s inaugural retreat in 2016, was glad to be back. She expressed:
“I am so centered here. So full of life. All my problems seemed to have left my mind. It’s more than just a retreat, It’s a reunion!” - Imani Walters
She felt like she could be herself. Back home, her own masjid (mosque) turned their backs on her and refused to provide support or look past her HIV status. She had no place to go where she felt comfortable praying or welcomed. She longed for the same support she received from the retreat back home. She yearned to freely practice her faith.
Attendees felt her pain and could empathize as they also faced similar hardships. From being outted about their status without their consent, to “friends” afraid to touch the same things as them due to the misguided fear of possibly contracting HIV.
The group began to strategize about how they can address HIV stigma in the Muslim community and the workings of a plan began. With the hopes of funding, combined with determination and support, Team RAHMA hopes to host workshops across the US in Masjids on HIV stigma, educate and hold leadership accountable, raise awareness and be a catalyst for change.
“The biggest reflection from the weekend is the importance of Muslims leading from the front and showing other Muslims the importance of testing and status. Also the importance of removing the stigma with correct information.” - Sai’d Abdur-Rahman
Retreat goers have requested RAHMA hosts its retreats more often. Its last retreat was in 2016 and it took almost 3 years to do another due to lack of funding. RAHMA hopes to accommodate this request and live up to its name by providing support to HIV+ Muslims across America.
Want to help make a difference? Donate today. Only together can we address HIV stigma and create safe spaces in our community.
About the Author
Khadijah Abdullah is the Founder and Executive Director of RAHMA. She is passionate about helping the community and identifying resources to help others. She was invited to The White House and met President Obama in recognition for her efforts. She also writes for The Huffington Post and is the Founder of National Faith HIV & AIDS Awareness Day and Playtime Event Sitters, an onsite wedding and event childcare company. Khadijah resides in Northern VA with her husband and daughter.