Jamilla Hassan is a Somali Muslim woman who works as a chaplain at M Health Fairview University of Minnesota Medical Center's East and West Bank hospitals. She was laid off on November 2, but will work until her termination goes into effect later this year. Credit: Aaron Nesheim | Sahan Journal

Alemseged Asmelash, an East African chaplain at M Health Fairview, had just walked out of a spiritual support meeting with a patient experiencing suicidal ideation when he saw two Muslim chaplains with devastated looks plastered across their faces.

All three chaplains had just lost their jobs, along with several other chaplains in the Fairview Health Services system. According to Fairview, one Muslim chaplain remains at the M Health Fairview University of Minnesota Medical Center, which has a location on Minneapolis’ West Bank, home to a large East African and Muslim population. The chaplain will serve the West Bank location and another M Health Fairview facility on Minneapolis’ East Bank.

“I just feel betrayed,” said Jamilla Hassan, a Somali Muslim chaplain who was laid off from M Health Fairview’s West and East Bank hospitals. “I don’t know what’s going to happen to Muslim patients.”

Two chaplains who spoke to Sahan Journal said they were blindsided by the layoffs, because they received no warnings about them before the news was announced on November 2. They will continue working until their termination goes into effect later this year.

“I was angry and shocked. If they gave us something like a yellow light first, then you might be prepared,” said Alemseged, a Christian chaplain who works at M Health Fairview University of Minnesota Medical Center’s West Bank hospital. “This was just like—boom.”

Alemseged and Jamilla were among the 250 employees whose positions were eliminated by Fairview Health Services. Fairview said 13 of their 42 chaplains were let go.

A spokesperson for Fairview Health Services told Sahan Journal that “dozens” of chaplains will continue serving 10 hospitals and 80 clinics across the system.

Layoffs will go into effect on a case-by-case basis, but terminations will generally occur before the end of the year, said a Fairview spokesperson.

Chaplains who were laid off from the system’s West Bank location worry that M Health Fairview’s Muslim and East African patients and visitors will lose support. Alemseged and Jamilla said three chaplains remain at the location.

Alemseged has served as a chaplain for M Health Fairview for nearly 21 years, serving in the West Bank neighborhood that is home to a large population of East African Muslims. The native of Ethiopia speaks six languages, and provides spiritual support to patients and family members who come from a variety of faiths. He mainly works in the hospital’s mental health unit.

“People are always looking for physical support from doctors,” Alemseged said. “But the body is not only physical, it’s spiritual when they feel grief or loss or hopeless—that is part of the healing.”

Alemseged Asmelash is a Christian chaplain at M Health Fairview University of Minnesota Medical Center’s West Bank hospital. He was laid off on November 2, but will work until his termination goes into effect later this year. Credit: Aaron Nesheim | Sahan Journal

The layoffs were made to accommodate what Fairview Health Services sees as the changing ways in which patients, their families, and staff seek spiritual support, a company spokesman said in an email statement.

“Every day, our care teams help patients and families arrange for visits and support by trusted spiritual leaders, based on their personal religious preference and unique cultural needs and we will continue to do so in partnership with our communities,” the statement said.

M Health Fairview offers other programs to support spiritual health and cultural needs for patients, employees, and community members, including a cultural brokers program, a restorative justice coordinator, the M Health Fairview Center for Community Health Equity, and more, Fairview said.

The spokesperson added that Fairview Health Services continues to employ “dozens of chaplains working across the system” representing a variety of faiths and cultural backgrounds. Employees who were laid off will have access to retraining, job search assistance, resume and interview training, and priority hiring for other jobs in the company’s system.

“An important and necessary part of this work is aligning our workforce to evolving strategic priorities, all while addressing the demands of inflation, including increasing labor costs, and payer reimbursements that don’t keep pace with inflation,” said Fairview Health Services’ statement.

‘I was the comfort’

Jamilla, the Somali Muslim woman who works as a chaplain at M Health Fairview University of Minnesota Medical Center, has been a chaplain for about four years, and became interested in the field while working as a medical interpreter.

Jamilla said chaplains are a part of a patient’s medical care team. Medical providers rely on Muslim chaplains to help Muslim patients feel comfortable, and to help medical staff better understand what’s happening with patients, she said. For example, Jamilla may provide support to a young Somali woman in delivery who is afraid to have a C-section and does not know what to expect. She also works closely with people struggling with addiction and the resulting stigma. Some patients also feel a disconnect with their medical team, Jamilla said.

“Sometimes they feel like the doctor is not doing enough. So we have to interfere and explain” things to the patients, she said. “Sometimes they’re very suspicious and feel like there’s something the hospital is not doing for them.”

If a Muslim woman at the hospital doesn’t have a headscarf, Jamilla will find one. She also provides patients and their visitors with prayer rugs, holy water, or a Quran. During the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, Jamilla said her fellow Muslim colleagues would pass out dates and water to hospital visitors who were fasting.

“It’s like I was the comfort,” Jamilla said. “They feel like their sister walked in, their mother walked in, their cousin walked in. Sometimes we don’t even talk about what they’re going through in a medical sense, so they feel like they have company—there is somebody who is representing them.”

Jamilla said she finds herself at a point in her career where she can’t yet retire, but will also have a difficult time finding a new job. She has four children: a 25 year old, twins who are 21, and a 19 year old. Her husband has a job and her kids work part-time, but Jamilla fears it won’t be enough. In addition to her family, Jamilla also worries for her patients.

Alemseged said he finds himself at a similar crossroads. He had previously planned to retire early in two years and work as a teacher or travel across Africa as a missionary. It’s been more than a week since he received news of his termination, and he’s still in shock, struggling to plan what he’ll do next.

He said he feels like he’s stuck on a boat in the middle of nowhere without a paddle.

“They took my paddle from my hand and the wind, it takes me. I don’t know where the wind is taking me,” Alemseged said. “I’m still waiting to get another paddle of hope.”

Hibah Ansari is a reporter for Sahan Journal covering immigration and politics. She was named the 2022 Young Journalist of the Year by the Minnesota Society of Professional Journalists. She’s a graduate...