By Nargis Rahman
About 10 years ago, a lot of things simultaneously happened in Sammer Zehra’s life that led to an important realization.
The Karachi-born Sammer, living in Chicago at the time, had become a mother and was longing to connect with others. She began doing monthly brunches at her town home, inviting everyone and anyone who looked like a young mom with small children, often strangers she met at the grocery store or library.
Sammer Zehra; image source: Sammer Zehra
“We all realized more than the brunches, we were missing our spirituality. Something as simple as salat was being challenged because of demands of motherhood,” she said.
Sammer also realized women were excluded from masjid programming, or programs were not kid-friendly after she became a new mom. After talking to a few friends, she noticed this was a widespread problem. “I didn't realize this was such an issue. A lot of women said, ‘I’ve become a mother but totally losing myself as a Muslim.’”
Around that time she read a news article about a local woman with young children who committed suicide. That demographic sounded eerily familiar and jarred her community, Sammer recalled. In those days there was less focus than now about “filling your own cup” and self-care, she said. So, Sammer decided to do something about what she was seeing.
Soon after a group of 30 moms, under Sammer’s directorship, bloomed into the Mommy League (@themommyleague) in 2014, an emotional and physical support system for new moms 6-8 weeks postpartum. Volunteers signed up to check on new moms, create and deliver meals, and help with things like running the dishwasher, vacuuming, or watching the baby while the mother showered – whatever the mom was comfortable with, said Sammer.
“Women don’t like asking for help but we appreciate it. Whenever that help shows up, you’re like ‘Thank you. Alhamdulillah.’ [It] makes you realize how much you do need it,” she said.
A friend later suggested she extend the program into ICNA Relief for other moms who may need similar services. Under ICNA Relief, Mommy League spread to the Rogers Park area of Chicago in 2016-2017 to provide resources like postpartum depression screening, phone counseling, lactation counseling and basic necessities to underserved communities, which Sammer says can “change the whole trajectory” for a mom.
Along with providing meals, diapers, formula, car seats, strollers, nursing paraphernalia and bottles were provided to nearly 150 women serving Syrians, Burmese, Moroccan, Pakistani, Indian, African American, Caucasian and other communities, including refugee families. The program operates through volunteers. New baby arrival kits, motherhood educational and celebratory events, like baby showers, are also organized upon need.
Sammer and her kids handing out formula, diapers and other essentials to mothers in need. Image source: Sammer Zehra
Amid COVID-19 restrictions in place, the ICNA Mommy League currently supplies newborn kits, car seats and strollers and financial support to families in need. However hot meals, volunteer and social visits have stopped. “Our case workers are reaching out [though] and staying in touch to make sure the moms feel supported,” Sammer said.
She said the work has been rewarding, and many women have come forward to help. “Mothers are some of the most compassionate people,” she said. Women who previously didn’t have help were some of the first to sign up. “Finding volunteers has never been a problem,” she said, adding that “even aunties in their ‘70's volunteer.”
Sammer has lived in various places and spaces as a Muslim. As a child she gravitated from the bustling and multicultural New York City surrounded by Muslim Pakistani families to being the only Muslim family in her teen and young adult years in Tupelo, Mississippi. As an adult she lived briefly in Egypt, where she learned a lot about Islam. After her time in Chicago, where she founded the Mommy League, she moved to Dallas. She said moving around gave her a unique perspective of building Muslim communities and women in a variety of spaces.
Mommy League’s services have been in high demand since its inception. They have crossed into other ICNA services, such as transitional housing in cases of domestic violence, and creating a national maternal health toolkit for patient advocacy and education in Arabic and Burmese, led by Madeeha Khan in Chicago.
The biggest thing the program provides is a support system in places where women may not have otherwise had it, said Sammer.
“Never underestimate what you can do as a person. Maybe for you, you’re doing limited capacity. Do it and Allah can put so much baraqah in that. If you do it with a good intention,” she said.