In 1996, she was working as a nurse when she visited an Iraqi refugee family to help care for their dying infant. She knew the situation would be difficult, but she wasn’t prepared for what she encountered.
“There, at the house, I got my first glimpse of poverty. … They absolutely had nothing,” she said. “There was no refrigerator, there was no stove, there was no crib. … The baby was in a laundry basket, laying on clean white towels.”
“I was so devastated by that. … I decided that this wasn’t going to happen on my watch.”
That day, Bazzy and her family gathered all the furniture and household items that they could — including a crib — and delivered everything to the family. She hasn’t stopped since.
According to the US Census Bureau, more than one-third of Detroit’s residents — and nearly half of the city’s children — live in poverty. It is the poorest big city in America.
Today, Zaman operates from a 40,000-square-foot facility in the suburb of Inkster. The group’s warehouse offers aisles of food, rows of clothes and vast arrays of furniture free to those in need. The group’s case managers help clients access housing and other services.
“We work to stabilize them as quickly as we can,” Bazzy said. “Women walk in and they are in desperate need, and they walk out with their basic needs met.”
The group’s donated clothing and furniture are also available to the public through its Good Deeds Resale Shop.
“Our mothers are able to come. They get a voucher and have the same dignified shopping experience as somebody else, but (do) not have to pay for it,” she said. “It’s about dignity.”
The nonprofit also offers clients free education and job placement, as well as vocational training through its sewing and culinary arts programs. The goal is to help women become self-sufficient.
“We’re a one-stop shop,” she said. “We help our clients move from a ‘hand out’ to a ‘hands on,’ because when you’re in crisis … the idea of how to get yourself out of it is overwhelming.”
Sherri Blanton, a Detroit native, was distressed when she came to Zaman. Her marriage had recently ended, and health issues had left her unable to support her daughter.
“Not being able to stand on my own two feet, it was hard,” said Blanton, tearing up. “They helped me with clothing, furniture, my car. … They picked me up when I was down, they really did.”
Blanton completed the culinary arts program and now works as a kitchen apprentice at Zaman.
“I look forward to going to work every morning,” she said. “This was just a stepping stone for me … Maybe in the next year or so I’ll be a chef!”
Ultimately, Bazzy wants to empower women to achieve their potential.
“People just need an opportunity. And they need hope,” Bazzy said. “That’s what we do best.”
CNN’s Kathleen Toner spoke with Bazzy about her work. Below is an edited version of their conversation.
CNN: How has Zaman evolved since you started?
Najah Bazzy: Zaman began helping refugees during the post-Gulf War (era) when we had a tremendous amount of refugees from Iraq coming into the Detroit area. But after a few years, I saw another population that was even more marginalized: the single mom, trying to raise her children with nothing.
Now, we focus on women with children living well below the poverty line. Most of our families make below $10,000 a year. We still help refugees, but we now have a large African American population. It’s open to everybody. It’s not based on faith or culture. All that matters here is: What do you need?
CNN: How does your Muslim faith inspire your work?
Bazzy: Our organization is a little mini-United Nations. Watching African American and Arab and Jewish and gay and people with disabilities and everyone working together — I just love that. For me, that’s the highest expression of faith — just bringing people together. Islam is full of verses about caring for humankind, but I think I would be this human being no matter what faith tradition I followed. Because in my heart of hearts I believe we are one human family.
CNN: How did your upbringing influence your decision to do this work?
Bazzy: People are often shocked when I say, “My family’s been in America 125-plus years.” My parents are born here, and my dad served in the Army during the Korean War. I grew up in the south end of Dearborn, outside Detroit. Nowadays, it’s well known for having the largest concentration of Arab Americans in the United States, but back when I was growing up, it was a hub of immigrants. It was people from Poland, Italy, Macedonia, Mexico, and we learned about their traditions and their different faiths. That’s why I love diversity so much.
Neighbors sat on the front porch and they shared food. Children would go from house to house. And just the amount of care that people had for each other — this is where I learned to love my neighbor.
CNN: It was recently the anniversary of the September 11 attacks. Your nonprofit expanded in the years after the attacks — a time when some people viewed Muslims with suspicion. How did that affect you?
Bazzy: There is a lot of risk in doing the work that I do, as a visible Muslim woman in hijab. I’ve had death threats. I’ve had to have protection placed around me. It’s an uncomfortable feeling. To know that you can put out love, but there are people out there who will judge love, this saddens me. I want to make every breath count, so I can’t fear those who choose hate. I can only control the love I have in my heart and choose that love.