Growing up in the United States, Aisha Asif had dreams of becoming a doctor, so when her family relocated to Pakistan, in the year following her high school graduation, she applied to medical school. At that time, the country was mired in political strife and certain freedoms of the press were being curtailed under the leadership of President Pervez Musharraf. Quite disturbed by the president’s actions, Asif began to think deeply about the importance of the press. Her meditation on this subject would ultimately persuade her to leave medical school in pursuit of a career in journalism. However, she could not have believed that in a few years she would be interviewed on live TV as a representative for the Islamic Circle of North America Relief.
“At first I was really nervous and didn’t want to do it, to be honest,” said Asif. “But then I thought I needed to get over my own feelings to bring attention to the real issues the refugee families face and let people know that refugees are living among us and there is a way for them to help through charities like ICNA Relief.”
Asif began working part time for the Islamic Circle of North America Relief in 2011. Impressed with her work, ICNA Relief offered her a full-time position that same year. It was an offer she would decline in an effort to focus more on her studies. But she returned there as the director of digital media and marketing in 2013, a year after she graduated from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Her job involves a host of responsibilities: She handles most of the content creation and news-gathering that happens throughout its 19 chapters, crafts most, if not all, promotional material and writes the press releases.
Personally, Asif has no interaction with Syrian refugees. One of the main reasons for this is that New York City has become too expensive for many of the resettlement agencies that pay their rent. This did not stop about 100 to 150 Syrian refugees from moving to Bay Ridge within the last year few years, however. These 100 or so refugees were able to resettle in Bay Ridge, thanks in large part to family sponsorship. Bay Ridge is the largest resettlement neighborhood in the city for Syrian refugees. The neighborhood— loosely known as the Arab Central of New York— has had a history of migration from Levant, where many Syrians are from, which makes it an ideal place for displaced Syrians. New York has resettled 552 Syrian refugees in 2016, making the state one of the largest for Syrian resettlement, according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement. Asif’s organization continues to work with many of these refugees in Albany, as well as in Elizabeth, New Jersey. ICNA Relief assists over 200 families in Elizabeth, Asif noted, with its outreach coordinators working with them around the clock.
Though most refugees tend to resettle where they have a known connection, whether it is family, friends, or a community, there are a growing number of Syrian refugees who are being resettled in smaller cities upstate. After the trauma of war and the culture shock of a new homeland, many refugees find it difficult to cope, especially when living in a city as fast-paced as New York City. As a result, they move to smaller, less intense cities that offer a slower pace of life. This does not mean that all of the families in upstate New York or Elizabeth, New Jersey are exactly thrilled with their new living arrangements, as Asif would go on to say, but they remain very grateful for what they have been given.
“When they came to the United States they were promised so many things by the U.N.: Healthcare, job opportunities, paid rent for the first year,” said Asif. “But when these things don’t turn up you are stuck in a foreign land, with no resources, no knowledge of the language, no support system. It can be very disappointing.”
Alongside its work with Syrian refugees, ICNA Relief strives to assist the wider community. Since 2005, ICNA Relief has worked as a separate organization from its parent group, Islamic Circle of North America. Its programs are not merely limited to the Muslim community; they are open to anyone that needs help. ICNA Relief is also one of the largest North American charities in the United States. The organization operates a network of 14 women’s shelters, six counseling centers and six free clinics that are run by volunteer doctors. It also hosts back-to-school giveaways around the start of every new school year. The organization’s service in the community has not gone unnoticed. Charity navigator, an independent charity watchdog organization, has rated ICNA Relief four out of four stars.
Before Asif began working for ICNA Relief full-time, she was a student at Brooklyn College. She wrote for the school newspaper —The Excelsior— and even had her own column. Her reporting on a protest about Stop-and-Frisk and the NYPD’s surveillance of the Muslim community earned her an award from the English department. She was particularly proud of that article, not only because of the certificate she received for it at graduation, but also because she felt that school newspapers usually were ignoring the wider issues affecting the community.
“Sometimes I feel like campus newspapers only focus on the very, very hyper-localized news. But the thing is that you don’t always just live on campus, you live in this wider community,” she said. “I feel like you need to devote some time on what’s happening in the community. Because if you do a little research you will find out that what’s happening in the community is almost always affecting the students.”
Asif graduated from Brooklyn College in 2012 with a degree in journalism and biology teacher education. While her current job is different from what she envisioned, Asif is very happy with where she is in her career.
“To be honest, when I started out in journalism I wanted to be a commentator on politics or just world news. But now I feel like I’m doing something really useful,” she said. “Even though I’m working behind the scenes, it is still fulfilling to see people in need say ‘because of you, ICNA Relief, I was able to get the help I needed.’ I feel like I’m making a real difference.”