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Open Doors 

Tucson's Islamic Center teams with physicians for a free health fair

Thanks to Sept. 11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, anti-Muslim sentiments remain a reality that members of the Islamic Center of Tucson have to deal with.

But Maqsood Ahmad, chairman of the center's board of trustees, says he and other members of the Muslim community want to change those perceptions with a June 5 health fair—and, eventually, a free clinic open to the public.

The health fair is part of National Health Care Day, organized locally by members of the Tucson chapter of the Association of Physicians of Pakistani Descent of North America (APPNA).

"It's often construed or assumed that we are a closed community, and it is contrary to the truth. We are absolutely not closed, and we are part of the community," Ahmad said.

Anyone can walk through the doors of the center for information, services or holidays, but few people who aren't part of the Islamic community do so, Ahmad said. However, that hasn't kept the Muslim community from being part of Tucson's interfaith programs and sponsoring events away from the center that bring Muslims and non-Muslims together.

For example, every year, the center helps organize the Muslim-Jewish Peace Walk. Center members also donate regularly to the Community Food Bank and work with local refugee-resettlement organizations.

However, Ahmad said some members felt that the center could still do more, with engagement from more local Muslim professionals—especially doctors.

"We're excited about this opportunity, because it is part of an activity to help with the needy in our community, and is made available to everybody without regard to cultural values. But as a group, we have a huge population of professionals, engineers and doctors. With our doctors, this is something we can do," Ahmad said.

Taqi Azam, president of the local APPNA chapter, says some health-fair volunteers are coming from as far away as Douglas and Sierra Vista.

"It's a chance for many of us to serve the indigent population in our community," says Azam, who adds that there are 250 APPNA members locally. "We don't always get a chance to do that as often as we'd like."

Ahmad said the center expects 200 to 300 people—many without health insurance—to attend the health fair. The center and APPNA are partnering with others, including Pan Asian Community Alliance and the Department of Economic Security (DES), to get the word out.

"Any project like this has its limitations. We don't have a medical facility, but we do have the volunteers," he said.

Before the Islamic Center moved to its current location in 1990, it was located in a house the community had converted into a mosque.

"We outgrew that space," Ahmad said.

Today, the center is almost again at capacity, due to the increase in refugees resettling in Tucson from Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and other African countries.

"The center was really started for the UA students, but then it became important for the professionals who settled in Tucson—engineers and doctors, like me, from IBM. That's why we moved to the new location," Ahmad said. "In the last five years, there's this huge influx of refugees who have come to the community, with different demands, who get limited assistance from resettlement agencies."

Over the last five years, Ahmad said center members have donated more than $50,000 to provide housing, food and transportation assistance to refugees, directly or though local agencies. While the health fair is open to everyone regardless of ethnicity or religion, he said he expects many of those refugees to be there.

The fair is also a test for the center, too—to see how well it can reach out to the greater community. If the fair goes well, Ahmad and Azam said they want to start a volunteer-run free clinic.

"Since this is our home, and this is where we live, we want to give our professional skills to those in need. So many in our community are uninsured, and there is a proven need in Tucson. A free clinic is the best way to we can directly help," Azam said.

Ahmad said other outreach activities from the center and interfaith communities will continue.

"To me, we are part of this community. We are loyal and heavily invested in this community," Ahmad said. "I, myself, have been here 37 years, and all of my children were born here and grew up here. My three sons have gone on to the university. This is our home."

Ahmad said members of the Islamic Center engage with the greater community as often as possible—although not every opportunity winds up being a positive experience. For example, a few years ago, members of the SaddleBrooke subdivision in Oro Valley asked a member of the center to answer several questions, some of which were out of line, Ahmad said.

"I think some people are misled by some talk-show hosts," Ahmad said. "Sometimes, I can understand the sentiment, but how can you take a broad brush that paints everyone as a terrorist? This time (with the fair and clinic), we've opened our doors, and people can come and see for themselves."

More by Mari Herreras

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