Fighting Islamophobia through health care in Cherry Hill

In an examination room are (from left) John Starling, mosque executive director; Jubril Oyeyemi, clinic medical director; and Rashidah Khalifa, operations manager.

Organizers of a free health clinic that opened in a Cherry Hill mosque this year knew some people would think it treated only Muslims, so they reached out to synagogues, churches, and other faith groups with a message: Anyone is welcome.

“We focused a great deal of effort on getting the word out to other communities, to let them know that this was going to be their clinic just as much as it would be ours,” said John Starling, executive director of the Gracious Center of Learning and Enrichment Activities, where the clinic is located.

The message seems to be working. While initially most of the patients were Muslim, they now include those of the Jewish and Christian faiths and speakers of languages from English to Arabic, from Chinese to Portuguese.

The clinic’s goal is twofold: Treat people with limited or no health insurance and change the negative reputation Islam sometimes has in America.

“Service to the community is a big part of what the message of Islam is,” said Jubril Oyeyemi, a doctor from Virtua Health System who practices internal medicine and directs the clinic. It connects to the library and prayer room of the mosque, which sits in a complex of office buildings along Esterbrook Lane just west of Springdale Road. “It’s just a pillar of the faith: being a good neighbor.”

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Jubril Oyeyemi (right) talks about the clinic with John Starling (left), GCLEA’s executive director.

The clinic opened in May and has gone from operating once a month to twice a month, usually in 3½-hour windows. It has treated nearly 100 patients, with issues ranging from diabetes to colds to mental health.

The services are similar to what ICNA Relief, an unrelated Islamic nonprofit, plans to offer when it opens a free clinic in Northeast Philadelphia this fall. That plan has generally drawn public support but also evoked fear from some residents who are skeptical of Islam.

The Cherry Hill clinic hasn’t experienced backlash, and its organizers credit that to having forged alliances early with religious organizations and township leaders, some of whom attended the clinic’s grand opening. (The Northeast Philadelphia clinic has garnered support from City Councilman Bobby Henon, who publicly denounced bigoted phone calls he said his office had received.)

“You can’t be afraid,” said Rashidah Khalifa, operations manager at the Cherry Hill clinic. “You just have to do it.”

Cherry Hill Township spokeswoman Bridget Palmer called the clinic an important part of the community and an excellent neighbor.

“They go out of their way, even though it’s affiliated with the mosque, to show they’re really nondenominational and open to everybody,” she said.

The township, which touts its acceptance of different faiths and backgrounds, was stunned in 2007 when three Muslim brothers, Dritan, Eljvir, and Shain Duka, were indicted for purchasing weapons in an undercover sting centered on a plan to gun down soldiers at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst. They were convicted of conspiracy in 2008 and are serving life sentences.

Police Chief William Monaghan, like many residents, recalls that case but said most residents understand some bad apples don’t reflect a whole group.

“We’re tolerant of different views and different opinions and different religions,” he said.

Police haven’t received any reports of discrimination or incidents at the health clinic. Monaghan attended its grand opening.

Discrimination against  — and support of — Muslims has grown nationwide in recent years.

Forty-eight percent of Muslims surveyed by Pew this year said they had been treated with suspicion, singled out by airport security or law enforcement, called offensive names, or attacked. That’s up from 43 percent in 2011.

Still, nearly half of those surveyed said they also had received expressions of support for being Muslim — a significant increase from 2011, when it was slightly more than a third.

Volunteers and patients at the Cherry Hill clinic say that even with the welcoming message, they still worry that someone might view Islam — and the clinic — negatively.

“I wasn’t afraid of going there. I was more afraid of something happening, because you know how ignorant people are today,” said Carolann Wade, 53, of Willingboro, who visited the day the clinic opened. Wade, who lost her insurance a year ago, spoke to a counselor and received referrals for a free mammogram and blood work.

Judi Laskodi, a volunteer counselor, had similar concerns about the grand opening.

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Jubril Oyeyemi speaks at the clinic’s grand opening in May.

“If somebody wanted to, I guess they could decide to do something bad. We were all out in public; we were outside for this party,” said Laskodi, 59, who also runs a private practice in Haddon Township. “So I thought about it, and I just figured, ‘It’ll be fine. I’m going to go eat some good food and assume everything’s going to be OK.’ ”

“Islam is a beautiful religion,” she said. “Just like all religions at their heart are.”