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"The Red Crescent Clinic" An APR news 40th anniversary encore presentation

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Finding affordable healthcare in Alabama is an ongoing problem. The Alabama Department of Public Health says 800,000 Alabamians can’t afford health insurance. That includes 80,000 children. The state adds medical debt from unpaid hospital bills is a leading cause of bankruptcy. A new free clinic in the Birmingham area that could lead to cultural understanding along with a check-up.

In downtown Hoover’s Crescent Islamic Center, worshippers crowd the mosque for daily prayer. It’s a simple room, decorated with little more than carpeting and a small, elevated archway where a speaker leads and gives sermons. There’s more to the Islamic Center than just the mosque. There are common areas and classrooms, and on Sunday afternoons, there’s a doctor. Between 2 and 6 p.m., one of those classrooms turns into the Red Crescent Clinic.

“They’re very friendly and cordial toward the patients," said Edward Cowan, who has been going to the Red Crescent Clinic for seven months. “They let you explain your situation, what you got going on as for as your medical issue, and they really do pay attention to you, and if they think something is wrong, they have a way to get your bloodwork done.”

A bad sinus infection brought Cowan to the Red Crescent Clinic for the first time. Three years ago, U.S. Steel laid him off after seven years on the job. Altogether, Cowan had been in the workforce for 32 years, but a layoff meant no health insurance when he needed it most as an older patient.

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“I couldn’t afford to go the emergency room," he said. "That’s $400 going to Hoover Freestanding Medical Clinic, and that’s just for the doctor to look in your ears with an otoscope.”

Then there was the risk of bloodwork, and not just facing the needle. Lab tests for uninsured people can get pricey. It can run as high as $1,500. But Cowan says the Red Crescent Clinic is meeting his needs.

“When I got the appointment I was real happy," Cowan said, "and I was real pleased with the way they treated me when I went there.”

Dr. Mina Khan treats patients at the clinic. She’s part of the Association of Physicians of Pakistani Descent of North America. Khan says that in 2011 she and some other physicians in the group were discussing ways in which they could give back to the community.

“It is quite fulfilling. I think it goes both ways. Volunteering is good for the heart,” Khan said. “I think our best resource was our medical education [and] our medical training.”

So the Red Crescent Clinic was formed. Khan said they now have a rotating staff of about 15 physicians. Treatment is limited to Sundays from 2 to 6 p.m., but Khan is hopeful they’ll one day be able to do more.

“We do hope to expand, but we have constraints as far as space, physicians, and also, naturally, resources funding," Khan said. 

She said the clinic was originally created with a twofold purpose. One was to meet the needs of and underserved patients.

“But secondly also to raise the image of immigrant, Asian, Muslim physicians in the community," Khan said. "That was something that had suffered, I think, after 9/11.”

Khan isn’t the only person thinking this way. David Gespass is a civil rights lawyer and a board chair on the Council for American Islamic Relations. He talked about the misconceptions Americans tend to have about Islam.

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“The most common, I guess, I would say, is that somehow or other it’s this, like, outlier religion that’s composed only of fanatics," Gespass said, "as if that’s not true of other religions.”

He’s of Jewish descent, and he said what Muslims are facing now reminds him of what Jews dealt with in America in the past.

“When I was growing up, what I heard about this country all the time was that it’s a Christian nation," he said. "Now people talk about it being a Judeo Christian nation, as if we’ve always accepted Jews in this country, as if there’s never been any discrimination, as if there’s never been any anti-Semitism."

The Hoover Crescent Islamic Center is run by the Birmingham Islamic Society. On a Friday afternoon, I was invited to attend a prayer service. After taking off my shoes as instructed, I entered the mosque. Inside, about 100 people were gathered. Prayers were both spoken and sung throughout the service. The message today was that for Muslims to connect with people of other religions, they should focus on what they share in common. I stepped out of the mosque and into the common area of the Birmingham Islamic Society.

“We as Muslims definitely want to be part of the solution,” said Ashfaque Taufique, the president of the Birmingham Islamic Society. “That’s the reason why clinic, or soup kitchen, or clothing drive, or habitat for humanity are important to us: for our faith...to serve the creator by serving creation.”

Taufique said the Birmingham Islamic Society had wanted to open a clinic for a long time. They had the facility and resources, but they needed doctors.

“When some of the Pakistani physicians approached me with an idea of partnering with us to open clinic, I said, 'Well, that’s a dream come true,'” he said.

And so, together, the two groups were able to make the Red Crescent Clinic a reality. Taufique recalled a story in AL.com about the clinic. The website had to remove some islamophobic comments from readers. Taufique also said Trump’s 2020 campaign included an attack on Sharia, or Islamic religious law.

“It’s a very sorry situation that people are using Islamophobia as a means to gather their bases around them with malicious, false accusations,” he said.

But what if people at the top of society viewed Islam differently? The Islamic Center had an open house recently. Taufique remembers reactions from some of the event’s most influential visitors.

“One of the most admired, or most misunderstood aspect they found out about our community-- that we have a clinic! [A] Congressman told me ‘I did not know that,’ mayor told me ‘I did not know that’, police chief ‘I did not know that,’" Taufique said. "It was a surprise, and I would guess that it was also a great admiration for our community.”

Knan recalled patient reactions.

“I’m sure there are people who have hesitation of coming because of our location, it being at the mosque," Khan said, "but we have seen patients from every walk of life, every religion, every race or ethnicity, and we’ve gotten nothing but positive feedback.”

That includes Red Crescent patient Cowan. We met him at the start of this story.

“They very nice and friendly and they listen to you and they take they time trying to diagnose what your issues are, so I appreciate them for that," he said.

Former APR student reporter Steve Hecmanczuk cover stories for the newsroom ranging from the "Red Crescent Clinic," the 54th annual "Bridge Crossing Jubilee" in Selma, to the Alabama "100 Mile Challenge."
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