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How Does This Bosnian Refugee Create a Safe Haven for People looking for a Fresh Start?
Nov 23, 2021
Nargis Rahman
contributing writer
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Emina Ferizovic and her team at J&E Community Relief hand out food to those in need.
Nargis Rahman
contributing writer
Editorial note: All this month we are focusing on the stories of Muslim women working in charity, whether as the head of some charitable organization, doing volunteer work or anything in between. We want to explore what drives these women to give of themselves to others, how they balance that in their lives and what advice they have to encourage others to take up work to help those in need.
In 1996 Emina Ferizovic and her family moved from Bosnia to Hamtramck, Michigan as refugees, depending on the kindness of strangers to build a new life. Emina says she is humbled by her experiences, which shaped her ability to empathize with those who experience similar journeys as refugees resettling in this country.
“I've been in their shoes. I've been in a place where I had everything in life, and then we had nothing and had to start from zero. And if it wasn't for certain services and help that we received at that time when we didn't have anything – when we were just newcomers – I don't know where we would be today,” she says.
Experiences like this inspired Emina to give back. That opportunity came in August 2018, when she quit her job and opened the Hamtramck-based nonprofit J&E Community Relief, a food pantry and community center.
The organization serves those in need in surrounding neighborhoods in Detroit, Hamtramck and Highland Park. Many of the people who come to the community center are African American, Yemeni and Bangladeshi.
“I always had a strong sense of having to give back to this community because it gave me so much at that time,” Emina says.
She says the pandemic has caused many sponsorships to end due to businesses that closed down. Now, the organization is looking for ways to stay afloat.
Emina Ferizovic
Before the pandemic the community center offered health and wellness classes, a homework club for students, a library, food pantry and space for a mom-to-mom event held annually. Much of those in-person services were put on pause during the COVID-19 global pandemic. But their winter coat and hygiene drives have resumed as well as providing hot meals to a local homeless shelter in partnership with local donors.
During the pandemic, Emina and volunteers held drive-through food distributions and delivered groceries to those who didn’t have cars or are elderly. “The community was amazing. We've had a lot of volunteers [whom] I've never met before they were here, and they [would] stay way after distribution would [conclude] to help clean up. We had a lot of teenagers who [would] come in and help package the stuff and then anybody who was [available]to drive [would] deliver food,” she says.
They now host distributions twice a month.
Internationally the organization has also taken on projects with a large impact. In Bangladesh, the nonprofit has sponsored 40 wells, helped build a mosque in a village that didn’t have one and sponsored an orphanage that was abandoned during COVID. Emina says, “We were able to collect enough funds to just keep them moving [and] give them the basics, such as several people who can come in and take care of the kids and just make sure that at least they have one meal a day.”
In Bosnia, the nonprofit sponsors meals for the ill and elderly who cannot leave their homes. “We make sure that a meal once a day is delivered to them. This meal is usually large enough for dinner and for lunch and dinner. We also do, at least twice a year, food boxes where families in need receive a box of basic items like flour, rice, oil – things that will get them through a month [at a time],” she says.
J&E Community Relief volunteers assemble hygiene kits.
The organization runs entirely on donations and volunteers. There are no paid employees. “So 100 percent of our donations collected go back into the community,” she says.
So, how are they able to do so much purely on donations? Social media has played a huge role in collecting donations for the organization – from raising initial funds to help Syrian refugees resettle into Hamtramck to continuing to spread the word for those in need.
“I will ask my friends to share to reach out to as many people as possible, and then I will just sit and reach out to whoever I could think of. There were a lot of times that [I] just bugged my own husband [to] dig into our savings. We did what we had to do to keep helping the community and to just make it through until things got better,” she says.
Being able to help the diverse population of Hamtramck as well as pursuing international projects is so important to Emina and her organization. The nonprofit has volunteers who speak different languages, including Bosnian, Arabic and Bangla – and because the volunteer population is spread across a variety of cultures and nationalities, they understand the unique needs of those who are being helped and who come from South Asian, Middle Eastern or European countries.
People line up outside of J.E Community Relief
Emina says she hopes more people will consider donating and volunteering with the nonprofit or any similar organizations. Her own introduction as a refugee to the community was supported by the community, which is why doing this work is so important to her. “This organization is here for the community. And it's basically run by the community. Without the people here, we couldn't do anything,” she says.
To learn more about J&E Community Relief or to donate to their work, visit their website or find them on Facebook.
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