Community has been the focus for this South L.A. health center
The open bar offered nothing more potent than lemonade. The dinner program included a break for evening prayers. The entertainment was a Farsi rendition of a Sufi prayer by Persian singer Sussan Deyhim.
But the fundraiser for UMMA Community Clinic at Riviera Country Club this spring was no more a Muslim event than UMMA is a Muslim health center.
The University Muslim Medical Assn. clinic — its acronym translates to “community” in Arabic — may have its roots in Islamic tenets, but its heart is in South Los Angeles, where it has provided free and low-cost healthcare to thousands of residents for 15 years.
The clinic anchors a gritty stretch of Florence Avenue, two blocks east of the intersection where cameras captured the beating, and rescue, of Reginald Denny — one of the most wrenching scenes of the 1992 riots. It’s a dreary but fitting spot because that wave of violent unrest, and the anger and despair that fueled it, opened a path for UMMA.
A group of Muslim American medical students at UCLA, watching the riots on television, were shocked by conditions in the area and vowed to do something about it. They made plans to get a van, outfit it with medical supplies and offer free medical care as they rolled through South Los Angeles. But visits to the neighborhood changed those plans.
“They realized that this is a community sick and tired of mobile things,” said UMMA’s director, Yasser Aman. “When crisis happens, money flows. When the money ends, the helpers leave.”
But the need in the neighborhood does not recede.
So the students — from UCLA and Charles Drew University Medical School — put their career plans on hold and went to work on a bigger dream. With help from former Councilwoman Rita Walters, they got a small community development grant, rented a boarded-up building for $1 a month and opened a modest clinic — one doctor, one nurse — where anyone could receive basic health services at no cost.
They called it the Charles Drew/UCLA UMMA Free Clinic, Aman said, “because they didn’t know what the reaction of the community would be if they knew that the founders were Muslims.”
That was 1996, when Islam was mostly a mystery, associated mainly in South Los Angeles with the bow ties, bean pies and separatist leanings of urban America’s Nation of Islam.
The clinic founders were the children of South Asian immigrants — Sri Lankan, Bangladeshi, Indian, Pakistani. For them this was a generational leap, a chance to cast their religious traditions toward a venture that would honor this country’s promise of equality.
Sharing wealth with those in need is one of the five pillars of the Muslim faith. For their parents’ generation, that typically meant giving to schools and mosques. In forging ties with outside groups, the students put a social justice slant on Islam’s charitable mandate.
Growing the clinic wasn’t easy.
“We were doctors, not businessmen,” said Aman, who came aboard in 1999, when the clinic had run through its government grant. “We had nothing in our checking account.”
They began appealing to Muslims in Southern California and raised almost $400,000 at UMMA’s first fundraiser in 2000.
The next year — with the nation reeling from the 9/11 attacks and Muslims “under a magnifying glass,” he said — donations to the clinic shot up.
“Muslims were anxious to show they cared,” Aman said. “Donating became a badge of honor.”
And UMMA became a nationwide model for Muslims. The clinic was the “first charitable medical institution in the United States established by American Muslims,” Aman said. “And now there are 36, in cities across the country.”
Almost 500 people turned out last weekend at a community festival celebrating UMMA’s 15th anniversary. It was held at the newly renovated clinic, which has grown from a staff of three to 30 and has eight rooms for examinations and counseling.
On my visits to the remodeled clinic, which still sits across the street from the One-Ten Motel, I spoke with a mother getting the TB test her new job requires; a diabetic who had just lost his job and his health insurance; a teenage girl pacing the waiting room, waiting for a pregnancy test; and an elderly man toting a coughing toddler.
More than 95% of the clinic’s patients are not Muslim, most are from nearby neighborhoods, and nobody gets turned away, I heard.
“It’s a place where you have a pain, you can go. Nobody asks what kind of insurance you have, what kind of car do you drive, are you an American or not.” That’s how Hoori Sadler describes it. She’s a native of Iran, a cancer survivor and the manager of her physician-husband’s Beverly Hills practice.
“They are only 25 minutes away,” she said, looking south out the window of her medical office. “But look at how much we have, and how much they don’t. Once you see that, how can you not want to help?”
She helped foot the bill for UMMA’s April fundraiser and is the cheerleader for its next big project: a health clinic and community garden on the campus of Fremont High, one of the poorest schools in Los Angeles Unified. Groundbreaking is this summer, and UMMA hopes to draw a visit from First Lady Michelle Obama.
If the past is any test, the project is in good hands. Sadler enlisted Magic Johnson as a sponsor of the April gala, stalking him for months in the garage of the office building they share. “I would sit in my car in the parking lot every day, waiting for Magic to come in.” Once she got his ear, he was a willing donor. At the silent auction, Johnson’s courtside season tickets drew $20,000 in minutes.
But even more telling was his emotional appeal. Johnson — the businessman, not the basketball player — has been the financial godfather of South Los Angeles for decades now, funding projects and advancing commerce in ways some experts said could not be done.
In his part of town, longevity counts for something — more than race or religion or ethnic background. I watched the loop of gratitude wind around.
“Thanks for helping us understand family, and working together and staying together,” Johnson told the mostly Muslim crowd at UMMA’s country club gala. “Thank you for being examples to us. For coming into our community. And staying.”
Then the auctioneer offered up a Lakers jersey, with Johnson’s iconic No. 32, and a new round of bids was underway.