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The aim in Michigan is to increase the number of licensed Muslim foster care families

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Child welfare agencies often try to place kids with families of the same race, or with similar cultural or religious backgrounds. In some communities, though, that can be tough to do. Michigan, for instance, has a significant Muslim population, but only a few licensed Muslim foster care homes. WDET's Nargis Rahman gives us this report on a push to change that.

NARGIS RAHMAN, BYLINE: When she was 13 years old, Najla Almayaly entered the foster care system when her parents divorced. She and her three sisters were separated. Now 20 years old, she lived in seven foster homes, five of which were not Muslim.

NAJLA ALMAYALY: There was no halal food. There was no going to the masjid on Friday. There was no salat, no what I was used to.

RAHMAN: Almayaly says she felt that her non-Muslim foster parents didn't care about her religion. Food was not prepared a certain way. She didn't go to the mosque for the traditional prayer. She wasn't comfortable wearing hijab to cover her hair.

ALMAYALY: I felt like I wasn't home.

RAHMAN: About 240,000 Muslims live in Michigan. Jessica Sweet, who recruits foster parents for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, says the state doesn't collect religious information. However, she says many Muslim kids in foster care end up in non-Muslim homes.

JESSICA SWEET: Right now, it really is based on the anecdotal information that we're getting, reaching out to county offices and having them hand-count this information and send it to us.

RAHMAN: Sameena Zahoor became a foster parent in 2012 after learning about the need from a sermon at her local mosque. Her friend, lifelong educator Ranya Shbeib became licensed in 2015. Shbeib says they realized many people were not aware there was a need for Muslim foster parents, so they created the Muslim Foster Care Association.

RANYA SHBEIB: There were some gaps within the foster care system and the Muslim community. And with my fostering experience, I knew that with the insight that I had as a foster parent, Sameena and I could work to bridge those gaps.

RAHMAN: Shbeib says there are only about ten licensed Muslim foster care homes in the state, while her organization serves more than 200 Muslim foster care kids every year. Its work expanded quickly from making holiday Eid baskets and care packages at the end of Ramadan to working with federal and state agencies to do a better job of placing Muslim children.

SAMEENA ZAHOOR: It was sort of like a grassroots. We would do these panel discussions with different communities, and then people started saying, well, where can we find out more information?

RAHMAN: Last November, about 300 current and potential foster parents gathered to learn more. Mona Musaid, the association's domestic foster care program coordinator, says the fundraiser was also held to help break the stigma surrounding foster care. Still, she says, persuading Muslim families to become licensed foster care homes is a challenge because the system can be intrusive.

MONA MUSAID: I mean, foster children are always under the watch. Caregivers are always in and out of the home - therapists, licensing workers - and it's very hard for the foster family to adjust to that lifestyle.

RAHMAN: The state does work with the association to train staff and families regardless of their background. But Shbeib says Muslims can step up to do more.

SHBEIB: There's so much to talk about in this area of foster care. And in Islam, it's part of our faith tradition, but unfortunately, it's not something that we're at the forefront of. And we want the Muslim community to be at the forefront of foster care.

RAHMAN: And she encourages more Muslims to take the first step by volunteering or becoming a mentor to Muslim children.

For NPR News, I'm Nargis Rahman in Detroit.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Nargis Rahman