COVID-19 has not stopped, or even slowed down, the Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition. The MMWC not only found ways to sustain its diverse programs but is also offering new ones. 

It provided technical training for its staff and quickly moved programs online—from the Milwaukee Muslim Film Festival’s 2021 Virtual Film Series to the Islamic Resource Center Book Club meetings and Our Peaceful Home domestic violence education programming, and more. Even its annual fundraising gala went virtual with a high quality video production. 

After Milwaukee’s Muslim community faced isolation in Ramadan, the MMWC found a way to create safe Eid drive-through festivals in 2020 and safe outdoor carnivals for record crowds in 2021.

It provided COVID-19-related educational programs for the Muslim community and began a new series of programs for Muslim youth. And this year, it created and hosted Wisconsin’s first Muslim mental health conference for social workers and mental health professionals.

When Afghan evacuees flowed into Wisconsin in the fall, just before the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, the MMWC stepped up to raise funds, collect donations of new clothing and supplies, and monitor their care. With each new need the Afghans faced, the MMWC moved to meet it. Most recently, it provided activities for children who were living in motel rooms while their families awaited resettlement.

A United States Army lieutenant general sent a letter in November from its headquarters in Texas commending the MMWC for donating six truckloads of new items to Afghan evacuees at Fort McCoy, as well as helping resettle them and “making a difficult situation better for our guests.”

How could the MMWC do all this? 

The short answer: “generous donors,” said MMWC president and founder Janan Najeeb of Mequon. 

“We are most happy that we have built a core of donors. They come, they attend, and even if they can’t attend, they are always there to support us,” she said.

“The importance of the annual gala is that it brings in unrestricted funds, unlike grants that are for specific programs,” she explained. “This allows us the creativity to come up with projects and ideas, gives us the opportunity to do new things and initiate new ideas, and to have the staff people to do these things.

Thanking donors at a unique event

The MMWC gala is usually a big affair, where board members work to fill tables and bring in guests. Program beneficiaries offer testimonials and MMWC leaders talk about upcoming plans.

“We were split about whether we could hold our traditional, in-person gala safely, so we decided to keep it online and plan a smaller event just for donors,” Najeeb said.

MMWC’s fundraising gala was held virtually on Dec. 4.

About 160 people attended the special event to thank donors, Friday, Dec. 10, at Dresden Castle, 3775 E. Underwood Ave., Cudahy. That’s half the donors, Najeeb noted.

Attendees were required to be vaccinated and extra tables were added so everyone could spread out and feel safe, she added.

“We wanted it to be strictly good food and entertainment. The hall was one we had never used before—Dresden Castle on Underwood. The place has character. People just loved the venue.”

Formerly a large Catholic church, Dresden Castle is a designated historical site, built in 1930, with neo-gothic revivalist architecture, which features high, pointed arches and a steeply pitched roof. Its sanctuary has been redone as a large banquet hall. “It looks like you are inside a castle,” Najeeb said. 

Entertainment featured Preacher Moss, a popular American comedian and writer from Washington, D.C. Best known as part of the comedy trio “Allah Made Me Funny,” he just finished touring the country as the opening act for famous comedian Hasan Minhaj. “What is great about Preacher Moss is he got his start in Milwaukee as an MPS teacher,” Najeeb said.

“We also had a jazz band, a first for us—the Juli Wood trio.” Juli Wood is a Finnish-American saxophonist, vocalist, composer and band leader from Chicago who appears regularly in Chicago and Milwaukee jazz clubs.

Madison Poet Laureate Angie Trudell Vasquez presented “Faith Sisters,” an original poem she wrote about the MMWC especially for the event. It celebrated the evolution of Muslim women, the daughters of immigrants, who grew into positions of leadership and continue to serve those who follow.

“We had great food by Taqwa Middle Eastern Restaurant and Bakery—lots of delicious food and an amazing dessert table,” Najeeb said. “It was a great opportunity to socialize for lots of people who hadn’t seen each other for about 21 months. A lot of people were thrilled to be there.”

Awards and recognitions

The winners of two major awards were announced. Helima Aichoune was recognized as Volunteer of the Year “for her immense dedication to helping the Afghan evacuees. She spent hours every day at the Islamic Resource Center, boxing new donations for Fort McCoy,” Najeeb said. “She would usually bring her youngest son with her, who would entertain us as she worked. She is tireless. She is a member of the Hanan Refugee Relief Group.”

The “Together We Can” Award went to Thea Lavin. “She has been a regular volunteer and helped us with our monthly virtual films after learning all the technical work. She also helped at all the Eid festivals by recruiting her family, relatives and friends to help and bringing in many of the animals. She is part of our book club and participates in many events, particularly those that promote Palestinian human rights,” Najeeb said. 

Najeeb also expressed gratitude to donors, and the MMWC board and staff. 

“We are so grateful and thankful to the donors we have and to the people across Wisconsin who donated for the refugees, for supplies for Ft. McCoy,” she said. 

“And we have a phenomenal board of professional women. Our board meetings are so dynamic and exciting and professional. 

“And we have a great team working at the MMWC. One of the things that I hear all the time from the staff is that they feel like they are not at work, they are at home, a family.”

“Janan twice asked her staff to stand up to be acknowledged,” said new staff member, Cherrie Hanson, MMWC’s special projects manager. “That kind of leadership, being a team, is where it’s at. I’ll never forget it.”

Contributions make innovative programs possible

In these times of a pandemic, forced migration, a polarized society and youth disillusionment, the MMWC has needed to be innovated. Funding from donors has made it possible for the organization to meet the demands of the times, Najeeb said.

“For the first time, we were heavily involved in outreach and education around the COVID-19 vaccine, to help the Muslim community become more aware,” she said.  The MMWC hired eight bi-lingual college students to help people become more informed and to dispel a lot of fallacies and misinformation about the vaccine. “We were really happy to be part of that and to help the Muslim community understand the value of the vaccine,” she said.

Another first was the two-day Muslim mental health conference this fall. “We brought in six national experts and we had another seven professionals from the Milwaukee area to talk about mental health, how it affects the Muslim community, and to address cultural nuances. We had so many school social workers and mental health professionals who came to learn, especially since a growing refugee community is coming in. That was very valuable.”

Also, this year, because of COVID, the MMWC initiated two large, outdoor Eid festivals, each drawing 7,000-8,000 people. Using the Islamic Society of Milwaukee grounds, the MMWC brought in carnival rides, animals, magicians and trapeze artists. “It was a full-fledged carnival. It was quite an amazing experience for people because it was after a Ramadan when no one had seen each other,” she added.

Another important initiative was the hiring of a youth coordinator and the launching of a series of programs for youth. “It is so needed,” Najeeb said. “We ran a series of programs and had a waiting list. It is something we will continue.”

In addition, the Milwaukee Muslim Film Festival returned to in-person events. Held at The Oriental Theatre, 2230 N. Farwell Ave., Milwaukee, the MMWC screened films from around the world and brought producers and directors from around the country to Milwaukee’s historic cinema.

Jumping into action to help Afghan evacuees

 “When Afghan refugees began to arrive at Fort McCoy, we were immediately alerted to the problems, mainly that the bases were unprepared – there were no changes of clothing, they were still trying to figure out cultural foods,” Najeeb said. “The state coordinator contacted me and said what can you guys do?

“We immediately jumped into action. We put all our staff on this and began working with a couple of dozen interfaith organizations and businesses, along with Hanan Refugee Relief group, who was very helpful with their volunteers. 

“We raised funds and we also collected brand new items to fill six trucks to send up to Fort McCoy. The MMWC was the only Muslim community organization in the state to be invited by elected officials for briefings and tours there. Through briefings with the top general and the top people in charge, we got a really good understanding of what was going on. The first trip was with Congresswomen Gwen Moore and Ilhan Omar and the second trip was with Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes. Their recognition of our ability to be involved and make a difference is very important.”

The MMWC has continued to serve the Afghans resettling in Wisconsin as needs arise. For example, Afghan families are waiting for weeks in motels to be resettled and their children have nothing to do. 

“What we did was say, ‘Send them our way,’” Najeeb said. “We didn’t blink. We put all our staff on it and, with volunteers, created programs for these kids. Our staff includes teachers and librarians, and an art therapist. They were singing songs with them and doing dances, arts and crafts and just helping them have a good time.

“They had lunch and snack, then were taken back to these motels that were just a couple of miles down the road from us.

“That gave the parents and the refugee resettlement agencies time to do the processing. We felt, as responsible citizens, that was something we could do. Having the cultural knowledge and understanding of their situation, we were well-placed to do it.”

Now many families have been settled. The MMWC is standing by, ready to assist new families as they arrive.

“We ordered backpacks for the kids,” Najeeb added. “We filled each backpack with hats, gloves, colored pencils and crayons and notebook and also put hygiene supplies – toothbrushes, toothpaste, hand sanitizer, shampoo and combs.

“We are going to be distributing these backpacks to all the kids. And a prayer rug. It was amazing when they came, they all wanted prayer rugs. We ordered 500 prayer rugs from Turkey. We are distributing some here and the rest are going to Ft. McCoy. 

“I’m going to brag here and say we are incredible stewards of peoples’ contributions. We are very careful with how we spend funds. From the day we started, we have never been in the red. We have always managed to cover all our costs. 

“Of course, the more funds we raise, the more opportunity to hire additional people that can branch out into other aspects of the work we want done. We feel the sky is the limit. We have so many creative ideas, ideas that could have tremendous impact.

“But everything needs money.”