Munira Maalimisaq poses for a portrait in Central Park in Maple Grove Minnesota on June 3, 2022. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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In the midst of her struggle with alcoholism, a local 20-year-old Somali woman didn’t know where to find help. She was overwhelmed with guilt while attending mosque for religious observances.

“That’s a feeling you tend to feel when you’re in a situation that you shouldn’t be in,” said the woman, who asked not to be named because of the stigma substance abuse carries in the Muslim community. 

Alcohol abuse carries stigma in practically all communities. But for many Muslims, that is often magnified because Islam prohibits alcohol consumption of any kind.

The same place that caused the woman deep shame later offered her a lifeline. She noticed a group of people meeting in the mosque regularly to support each other. Soon, she was attending the meetings and sharing her own experiences with alcoholism among a group of mostly strangers grappling with the same issues. 

“I was a little hesitant at first, but I knew I was in a situation I didn’t want to be in anymore,” she said. “It’s like a feeling where no one can help you. You’re just disappointing yourself and feel too guilty to talk about it.” 

She started attending the weekly meetings, which were founded four years ago by Munira Maalimisaq. Munira stumbled upon the unusual concept of bringing substance-abuse treatment to mosques while studying for her nursing degree at Metro State University. While such meetings aren’t new at houses of worship in other faiths, it’s unheard of at mosques.

Today, the Muslim support groups draw more than 60 attendees who meet every week in two groups at two Twin Cities-area mosques. While organizers and the attendee who spoke with Sahan Journal say the groups are making a difference, many in the East African community still grapple with speaking publicly about the issue because of the shame associated with substance abuse. 

The attendees are largely Somali and range from as young as 13 to as old as in their 60s. 

The mosques that host the groups prefer not to publicize that they do so. The support groups don’t advertise publicly, and instead spread information through word of mouth. Often, parents ask mosque leaders for help with a child who has substance abuse issues, who imams refer to Munira. She contacts the person herself. 

Munira knew she had to work within people’s comfort levels in order to be successful. 

“I needed to meet people where they were,” said Munira, who helps lead the support groups.

Detox visit a ‘cultural shock’

Munira, 34, went through her own journey of accepting that alcohol abuse was an issue in her community. She was visiting a Minneapolis detox center in 2018 as part of her schooling when she saw something she wasn’t expecting—80 percent of the people there were Somali men. Before then, she said, she had never seen a Muslim drink alcohol.

“It was just a cultural shock for me,” Munira said. “I had to check my own biases, process it, and understand it afterwards.”

She quickly realized that there was a need for culturally specific substance abuse treatment. 

Police can place intoxicated people who are a danger to themselves or others in a detox center for up to three days, although some are released earlier depending on the circumstances. Munira volunteered at the Minneapolis detox center for several days, and saw many of the same people who were released from the center at 10 a.m. come back by 8 p.m. that same day.

If you or someone you know in the Muslim community is struggling with substance abuse problems, here are some local resources: 

  • For information about the mosque support group, email brightertomorrow612@gmail.com. Munira or Jamila will try to respond to messages within 24 hours. 
  • The Twin Cities is also home to culturally specific treatment centers. Alliance Wellness Center in Bloomington is open to all communities and is tailored to the East African community.
  • Access Healing Center in St. Anthony is a treatment clinic focused on adolescents between the ages of 13 and 18 in recovery. Munira’s support group has referred attendees seeking treatment to Alliance Wellness Center and Access Healing Center. 
  • Munira also recommends Rahma Heart Care, a St. Paul-based clinic specializing in cardiovascular diseases where uninsured and underinsured people can receive care.

“They would tell me, ‘This is not who I am. I want to get better but I don’t know how,’” Munira  said. “Then they would be so motivated the next day to say, ‘This is the last day. I’m not coming back here.’ But then at nighttime they were back.” 

Some people in detox were so ashamed of their behavior that they refused to look her in the eye. When a support group at the detox center led a serenity prayer, which asks God for guidance, Munira watched as the Muslims in the room slunk away. She asked one of the Muslim men why he wouldn’t join in the prayer. He told her how drinking had affected him and his loved ones, and that he didn’t want to offend God by participating. 

“I am already betraying God,” she said the man told her.

The reason so many Muslims landed in the detox center, Munira realized, was because they didn’t have a place for addiction treatment that met their cultural needs. Her community avoided the topic, she said, because in Islam, alcohol consumption is considered haram, or forbidden, and because alcohol isn’t widely available in Muslim-majority countries.

“We had zero exposure to alcohol at home because it wasn’t sold in stores,” Munira said. “We do not have a healthy understanding of what alcohol is. So when people started drinking, there was no, ‘This is my cutoff.’”

Munira started contacting mosque leaders around the Twin Cities to see if they had programs to support people with substance abuse disorders. No, they told her, but all of them said they regularly consoled family members of people suffering from addiction.

She asked one mosque to hold a space for her once a week for 90 minutes so she could start a support group. She pledged that she would come up with the rest. 

Munira founds Muslim support group

Mosque leaders allowed Munira to establish support groups at their locations because they already knew her through her community work holding blood drives, helping community elders with tasks like cleaning their homes, and teaching GED classes. 

“People knew me, and they knew they could come to me,” she said. 

Working alone while still attending college, Munira visited local Christian churches that held Alcohol Anonymous (AA) meetings to gather resources and ideas. The AA model of supporting alcoholics in sobriety is an institution across the world; well over 100 AA support groups meet across the Twin Cities metro on a typical weekday,

Then, she developed a curriculum for her support groups. She found that there were obstacles to establishing an AA group, including the bureaucracy of getting a new group AA-certified. Muslim attendees also didn’t want the support group advertised on banners in public places. 

Munira decided the support groups would follow a different model, which allowed her to customize much of the curriculum. It doesn’t include the serenity prayer and the “Higher Power,” which AA curriculums use to show people that there is something greater than themselves that can help their road to recovery.

Munira founded the first support group in 2018–just four months after her visit to the detox center–while she was still a nursing student. Four men who were already seeking help for their addiction through the mosque leader became the support group’s first attendees. They would soon recruit friends with similar struggles, and the support group grew organically.

Though Munira had carefully planned the support group, she says it drew pushback from some community members. A religious leader permanently left one of the mosques that hosted the support group. Others called Munira’s father to tell him that his daughter’s efforts  encouraged alcohol use.

Sometimes, Muslims with addiction issues are so marginalized that other community members won’t associate with them. Some people speculated over Munira’s reasons for founding a support group, she said.

“Today there are people who will say, ‘She has the issues, she is a drinker, that’s why,’” Munira said. “But I’m OK with it. Say that. If someone says, ‘We’re not going to marry her son.’ Good. I’m glad.” 

Not all pushback was as dramatic. Some mosque attendees, like Jamila Abdulkadir, understood the need for such a group, but initially questioned whether a mosque was the right place to host it. She stumbled upon a meeting one day while volunteering for other activities at the mosque.

“I come in, and I’m like, ‘What are they doing in a place of worship talking about alcohol and substance abuse?’ ” Jamila said. “We see that in hospitals. We see that in rehab clinics. But not in a mosque.” 

A mosque leader told Jamila to keep an open mind. 

“Try to attend a couple of meetings with us, and see what we’re doing,” Jamila recalled hearing.

Jamila followed this advice and liked what she saw. “Addiction disease doesn’t discriminate across the social classes,” Jamila said. “Every community is prone to it.” 

Soon enough, Jamila found herself assisting the support group and leading meetings.

Getting clean

To the 20-year-old woman who struggled to find treatment, Munira’s group offered an opportunity for people to discuss their addiction issues out in the open. 

“I didn’t really know that there were a lot of other people who have the same issues that I did,” she said. 

Attendees don’t have to talk or share anything about themselves if they don’t want to. The conversations don’t always revolve around substance abuse. For example, participants can just talk about their emotions and why they feel a certain way, said the woman, who is in recovery.

Support-group meetings also include workshops on topics like job and education opportunities. The 20-year-old woman learned about a GED program this way. She entered the support group after dropping out of high school, and now credits the support group with helping her earn a GED. She recently enrolled in Normandale Community College, where she’s currently in her first year. She plans to earn a degree in business administration. 

She also understands that she’ll be in recovery for the rest of her life.

“I don’t feel the need to use escape mechanisms like I used to, but I know this might be temporary,” she said. “Alcoholism isn’t something that’s just a one-time thing—it’s a lifelong disease.”

Today, she’s 18 months sober, and credits Munira’s support group with helping her stop drinking.

“It gave me a sense of security that I wouldn’t otherwise have,” she said. 

Munira’s work isn’t done. She’s hoping that at some point down the line, the support groups can have a more public presence instead of operating so quietly. Munira juggles the support groups while working full-time as a registered nurse in the cardiac unit at Methodist Hospital in St. Louis Park. She just earned a degree as a nurse practitioner, and will soon practice family medicine. 

Munira also recently founded and plans to open Brighter Tomorrow, a health clinic that plans to establish a space for people to meet outside of mosques, but with public support from mosque leaders. Munira hopes to open the clinic in the St. Louis Park area in the next year.

But she’s handing over leadership of the mosque support groups. Who will replace her? The support group’s first attendee, an older man who turned his life around after joining the group four years ago. 

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. He has been a journalist for 15 years. Before joining Sahan Journal, he worked for close to a decade in New Mexico, where his reporting prompted the resignation...