Revitalizing a Detroit Neighborhood: Blacks, Jews, and One Special Muslim Woman
February 3, 2017
DETROIT – Amina Iqbal is a soft-spoken Muslim woman whose parents came from Pakistan, who speaks fluent Arabic as well as English and wears a hijab and traditional modest dress. But she is also a metropolitan Detroiter who grew up in suburban Brownstown Township, where she was born. Today she lives with her husband, a professor of biomedical engineering at Lawrence Tech, and their four kids in Canton. And she, an elderly Jewish cardiologist, and a group of African American kids and parents have formed a partnership to make a neighborhood in Detroit a better place to live.
To be fair, there are indeed a few differences between the 36-year-old Amina and most of her neighbors –but the important ones have nothing to do with religion.
For one thing, she is highly educated, with degrees in professional childhood development and global education policy. She’s studied abroad, and has advanced media skills. But Amina Iqbal is also helping turn a chunk of Northwest Detroit around. She recently became executive director of Project Healthy Community, a collaboration that teaches adults about nutrition and runs an afterschool program to help more than 30 children eat right, awaken their curiosity and develop a love of education. And it’s working.
This is the story of a partnership between Jews and African-American children, their parents, their pastors, and one savvy Muslim woman to reclaim a neighborhood. What’s more, they think they have a model that can spread throughout the city. “Our goal is to train other communities how to do it,” said Dr. Melvyn Rubenfire, a distinguished cardiologist who grew up in the city.
Rubenfire, who was born in 1940, grew up in a tiny house in northwest Detroit, after his father came back from serving with the U.S. Marines in World War II. “Back then, the Jewish and black communities were closer. They had racism; anti-Semitism is what I had to deal with,” he said. He went on to become chief of cardiology at Detroit’s Sinai Hospital, then a professor at the University of Michigan and director of major cardiac programs there.
He never stopped caring about the old neighborhood, “but I never had time to get involved in anything.” However, he wanted to make a difference. One day, after talking to a rabbi at Temple Israel, he had an idea. He and his late wife Diane decided to go see what had become of the old Jewish Community Center in Northwest Detroit. It had become a neighborhood activities center, but was in a sad state of disrepair. They arrived, by pure chance, just as a board meeting was going on. The director came out to say hello. “When I told him what I was thinking about, I saw a tear in his eye,” Rubenfire said. “They were meeting to decide that they had no choice but to close it down.
“Our being there then was truly beshert,” he said, using the Yiddish word for destiny. Soon, a partnership grew between the Jewish community—primarily Temple Israel—and Hartford Memorial Baptist Church, led by the Rev. Charles Adams. Project Healthy Community began by providing not only food through a “mobile pantry” operating at the activities center, but presentations and discussions about nutrition.
This then led to an afterschool program (now at the nearby Schultze Academy), where as many as 35 kids from kindergarten to fifth grade attend for two hours, four days a week. “I’ve seen frowns go literally upside down,” said Iqbal, who became executive director of the entire project late last year. “Students have changed in their behavior from being super rowdy to being quite calm and listening attentively.”
Reaching these children is not easy. Their parents may not read and write themselves. “One child told me ‘reading isn’t important.’” She explained he would have to read street signs to get anywhere. “Maybe he thinks reading is important now; maybe not. But we have another five months to convince him. I personally feel we impact the students while teaching them everyday values, including respecting ourselves and one another, the importance of organization, and helping their educational needs in a subtle way,” she added. “Amina is just great. She’s exactly what we needed,” Rubenfire said. The project has grown to include a scholarship program, a summer camp and other opportunities.
What’s especially gratifying is that the largest group of volunteers consists of the people the project has served. That doesn’t mean more aren’t needed–especially teachers. Anyone interested can check out www.projecthealthycommunity.org.
“Our goal is to train other communities how to do it – not to see ourselves as any kind of a savior riding in on a white horse, but to be involved in forming partnerships,” he added.
Melvyn Rubenfire thinks he’s the lucky one. “The rewards that I get and my late wife got—seeing the progress—is so meaningful to me. This isn’t religious, but this is a spiritually connected program. And the community center today looks better than it did when we were kids.” Diane Rubenfire, his wife of 53 years, died in 2014, but their daughter, Karen, is a therapist who is also director of community outreach for Project Healthy Community.
They are hoping to expand their program to at least one new school a year. Bagley, an iconic elementary school, was scheduled to be next, but they’re awaiting a green light from the newly reformed Detroit Public Schools Community District. “Our mission is to have this be a model that can be used anywhere there is a community in need,” Rubenfire said. That may take some time. But for now, the pilot program has gotten rave reviews.
is the head of journalism at Wayne State University, serves as Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst and writes regularly for several publications. He also serves as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is host of the weekly television show Deadline Now on WGTE-TV in Toledo.