I REMEMBER EARLY mornings at the swimming pool in Lahore. Of all the women who came there, with their stories and lives, one I have never forgotten. She looked aged, and always spoke in French to her newborn baby girl. The lady, we heard, had three much older married daughters. This fourth one we found out was not her own.
One day just before dawn she had gone to a popular shrine accompanying a masjid in Lahore. This place is in one of the poorer regions of the city, a haven for the homeless, hungry, and helpless. As the lady came out of the mosque, in those early hours when it was still dark, she saw a bundle lying at the door of the building. It said, “Have mercy and take her.” Standing where she was, as she saw the small sleeping baby, the woman decided on the spot that the little note spoke to her. She trusted herself with the responsibility and picked up the baby to take her home.
A thousand thoughts crossed her mind then. Was she fit for this type of thing especially since her own kids had grown so old? Who were the baby’s parents? Should she leave the child there? What if somebody else came, and took her with malicious intent? What if no one took her and she died of hunger and lack of care? What if someone sold her? Although her husband and she tried to locate whether anybody knew her family for several days, there was no response.
That same day when the woman brought the baby home and showed her to her husband, her husband left to go outside for a bit. When he returned he had some papers to give to his wife. Recently, he had purchased some land for each of his three daughters. As soon as he had seen this baby that his wife brought home, he left to buy one more piece of land of the same value for this newborn. He said, she must have all that their other daughters did. They never found out who the parents of that child were, and she grows up today as one of their own.
This was a remarkable commitment made by the family in one spilt second for the rest of their lives. Today there are estimated to be more than 500,000 children in the United States of America in foster care on any given day. These are children who are not up for lifelong adoption but those who require temporary housing, care and a family to look after them for some time. Some children in foster care need a place to live merely for some hours, some for a few days, or weeks. Sometimes it may be for some months or up to two years that they require a home to welcome them.
Children in foster care become the ward of the state after some familial circumstance that prohibits them to live with their family for some time until matters are sorted out. Sometimes it may be a result of an illness that the child/parent has that doesn’t allow them to be in care at home. Other times there are issues of emotional abuse, or even physical assault or substance abuse at home. A social worker then usually steps in and the children are removed from the home of the parents to live somewhere else where they will be safer and better cared for. Sometimes it maybe that Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) on some ground has to remove the children from parental custody. Usually it takes some time for such matters to be sorted until the children can be reunited with their family.
Children in foster care belong to all age groups, from newborn babies to teenagers. There could also be just one child who goes into foster care or several siblings from the same family. In the latter case, it can only be hoped that the siblings find a home that welcomes them all, or else they are split apart to get foster care.
What is ironic in all this is that our eyes remain closed to most of this reality. It’s almost like most of us American Muslims are oblivious to this opportunity of wondrous care giving. Although every once in a while we choose to sponsor a child in some developing country, or adopt one in some other far away land, we may remain unconcerned about children requiring foster care within our own communities. The greatest reason for this is nothing malicious, but just plain ignorance. Our community is not involved in the foster care of children in need, because up to now we have not yet fathomed the seriousness of the issue.
While one need not be exclusive to racial demographics when it comes to caring for children, since all children are created on fiṭra, it may still disturb us more to know that some children in foster care all across the United States are from Muslim families. Despite the efforts that social workers and organizations make to pair up children in need of foster care to homes where the same religion is practiced, it is seldom an easy task. Although it is not that complicated the process to be certified as a foster parent, our community is generally uninvolved in this process. Some Muslim groups however, have sprung up all over the United States that try to get Muslim families to join this cause. After the first step of creating awareness has been taken, a few families have over the years decided to become foster parents.
It is truly heart wrenching to know that in our community there is still this inhibition or taboo, if you want to call it that, about bringing others’ kids into our homes to raise them, or even to protect them for a while. That is just the point, these are not other’s kids, they are our very own. The Jewish community about thirty years ago started working on building this kind of awareness so that Jewish kids would not go to a non-Jewish home for foster care. In our case however, some children do end up in cultures that are alienating even though the foster parents may be caring.
If our community is open to accepting these children, we could ensure that they do grow up in a Muslim environment where food laws, prayer timings, dress propriety, and the like are followed. Some time back we did have a case of a Muslim girl converting to Christianity while in foster care. While, the foster parent never coerced her toward her religion, of course the teenager made a choice that was quite clear to her. She had found protection not in a Muslim home, but in a Christian one. We often close our eyes to unpleasant situations. Quite recently when an Imam announced that a Muslim child was in need of foster care, because her family was involved in substance abuse, several people turned around to suggest that it was better for her to stay in her home rather than live in somebody else’s home. Why should we consider our homes as being that of someone who is a ‘somebody else’? If our hearts were sensitive to the needs of children, we would never shut our doors in the face of a child.
Even though numbers are small because family structures are pretty close knit, we have around thirty Muslim kids in foster care each year in New York City, from among thousands. Which homes do these children end up in? As wars and catastrophes plague the Muslim world there is today a population of 14.9 million refugees in the world. 5% of these are unaccompanied children. If we were to open our eyes, hearts and homes, we will see plenty of opportunities around us to help children who require foster care, either because of unsettled situations/legal cases at home or because of the refugee crisis.
Being a foster parent is a beautiful yet hard job. The children are often traumatized, suffer great separation anxiety, sometimes may be physically violent or extremely quiet, and locked up within their own shell. But then, I wonder don’t we deal with so much of an emotional bundle in our own children? Are we not concerned about their spooky nightmares, and lost soccer games, and broken hearts when a friend can’t come over? We take these with seriousness; often we stay awake for a child who has a stuffy nose. These are small things that matter much to the little ones, and, these are small things that matter much to us because of our sense of their belonging to us.
For a foster child who has lost much of his sense of belonging, who has been taken away from his home, perhaps neighborhood, friends or school –to be relocated maybe several times in different temporary foster care homes– what is the meaning of home? Won’t that child grow up feeling he has no family that really cares enough? Not his own family, not anyone else’s family. Giving a foster child his own living space, working around what he likes to do, just like we do for our own, cooking for him, working on his grades must mean much to someone who has been uprooted. But, most importantly, instilling in that child a feeling that the world can still be trusted. Making him or her come out of a wrecking nervousness –where they can confide in you, or share their stories– is such a beautiful achievement.
Such a child will cherish the Muslim community, because he will know that they bailed him out when his own home was broken. That they loved him because he was one of their own. That his well-being mattered to them like that of their own children because he was part of the Muslim family. For the child’s own parents too, when they get to meet the child in the foster parents’ presence, it would be reassuring that she is in kind hands –not as a favor to them, but as a means of seeking the favor of Allah.
So I wonder now, how many of these 500,000 children is our community are we willing to take care of? These children do not ask for eternal commitment, but they promise us eternal reward. The one who takes care of an orphan stands in close company with the Prophet ﷺ on the Day of Judgment. My Prophet was himself an orphan, and when no one offered to take him home, Halîmah Al-Sâʿdîah came. A split second decision that made her the mother of the Most Beloved.