The following speech was given by CAIR Vice Chair Raja'ee Fatihah for the Surayya Anne Foundation's 2021 Iftar in the Park fundraising dinner. Published with permission.
I approached this task thinking it was my job to convince you this organization is worthy of your support. But your presence is perhaps the greatest proof that you already know the value Surayya Anne Foundation brings to the lives of the people they serve and, indeed, to our community. And this organization is particularly meaningful to me, so please accept my gratitude for putting this high enough on your list of priorities to be here.
So, knowing you are already onboard with the SAF, committed to supporting the incredible work they do, I thought I’d just share some personal reflections on why this organization is important. There are a lot of causes you can get behind, but this organization is a purveyor of one thing I think is profoundly transformative. It’s really a simple thing, and those are both the most impactful and also the most frequently overlooked. But sometimes the things we consider basic and elementary are the most instructive.
Take this, for example. Muhammad (PBUH) said things like, “a smile is a charity” and “a kind word is a charity”. Have you ever thought about why he would say those things? This is someone who was on a mission. Someone who was acutely aware that people would repeat everything he said and emulate everything he did; so he was intentional when he spoke and acted.
A few weeks ago I got up on a Saturday morning knowing I had some work to do around the house. I wasn’t upset , but I didn’t have the best attitude about it either. I went to Lowe’s to get what I needed and couldn’t find some things. A woman working there noticed I was having a hard time and came to help me. She had a pep in her step and a smile on her face; the way she acted you’d swear it was the best day of her life. She helped my find what I needed and as I turned to walk away she said, “It’s a beautiful day to work outside. You should go to Braum’s and get enjoy some ice cream before you get started!” I took her advice. And I quickly realized that her smile and kindness changed my whole outlook on the day.
A smile and kindness are not charities because they’re nice gestures. Sure, they make us feel nice, but they’re simple things that take little effort, but have the ability to change lives. Muhammad (PBUH) said those things because simple things like a smile or a compliment have meaningful impacts and you never know how much someone needs it, or how significantly it may change their course. Hope is one of those simple things.
I’ve seen my share of struggle and hardship in the short life I’ve lived so far. And the thing that made it all bearable was hope. Those episodes of momentary relief when you’re steeped in adversity infuse life with an unshakable confidence that you can overcome whatever obstacles lie ahead. Hope is a bridge from despair and helplessness to productivity and happiness; meaning it has both spiritual/emotional benefit as well as a definite impact on lived reality and experience. When facing a crisis, less hopeful people tend to shut down. Hopeful people are take action to find ways to cope.
The Surayya Anne Foundation gives their clients tangible help; they do things for people that have an immediate effect on how they live and view their lives and they’re filling pressing needs which is important. But the hope they sow in the process is infinitely more significant. Researchers find that hope is associated with a lot of positive outcomes, including greater happiness, better physical health, better academic achievement, better social support and longer life. Hopeful people have fewer chronic health problems, less depression and less anxiety. It literally makes us happier and healthier and hopeful people have a greater sense that life itself is meaningful.
There was a study that involved a survey of college students where they measured hope, depression and anxiety, and then repeated the survey several months later. They found students who expressed higher hope at the beginning of the study had lower measures of depression and anxiety months later. That outcome is predictable, but the interesting thing is the reverse wasn’t true. Having higher levels of anxiety and depression at the beginning of the survey had no effect on future levels of hope.
In another study researchers found being hopeful about your future had a positive impact on your likelihood of success. In fact, hope is a better predictor of success and productivity than intelligence, optimism, personality or academic achievement. A hopeful person does one day a week more work than a less hopeful person—that’s actual work done, not hours worked. Consider the things we emphasize when we talk about changing the direction of our lives: credentials, relationships, hard work. Sure, those things are important, but how often do we invest deliberate effort in cultivating hope in people who are trying to make moves? That’s what the SAF is doing every day.
You might think I’m making a bigger deal of hope than it warrants, but when you think about how hope as a concept—as a force in our lives—matters, you can’t emphasize it enough. The low end of hopelessness is losing the will to live. That’s no exaggeration because hopelessness is a better predictor of suicide than depression. And everybody has access to hope. Just sometimes we need a little help tapping into it. And you don’t have to displace someone’s fears, doubts and anxieties with hope, you just have to remind them it exists.
In the 1950’s, a well-known Harvard graduate doing research at Johns Hopkins University did a series experiments that led to an amazing discovery. Curt Richter wanted to see how long rats could swim before they drowned, so he put them into buckets half-full of circulating water. Even though rats are notoriously good swimmers they only lasted about 15 minutes before giving up, though some swam as long as an hour.
In a follow-up experiment, when the rats started to give up, he pulled them from the bucket, dried them off, gave them a few minutes of rest and then put them back into the bucket. The rats that swam only 15 minutes before now swam for an average of 60 hours. There was no appreciable difference between one rat and another. The only difference is some of them received the intervention and others did not. The rats that were pulled from the bucket and given a moment to rest swam 240 times longer than the ones that were not.
If you extrapolate that to people’s lives the implications are astounding. People struggle and strive for years; you multiply that by 240 and hope enables them to drive on for a lifetime! I think most of us have experienced this play out in our own lives. Not to this extreme, but you can probably think of examples of coming to the brink of giving up and then something happens that causes you to keep going.
I’m a tinkerer. I go out to the garage and just mess around. Sometimes there’s a bolt that just won’t budge and I’ll try to get it to move for a while, but eventually I’ll give up, put it aside and move on to something else. But if that bolt moves just a little bit, I’ll keep trying, confident in the idea there is a way I can get it loose. I’ll try different things, redouble my efforts. And stick with it until I get the outcome I want. A little hope goes a long way.
But in life you can’t just put things aside and move on to something else. When you can’t put food on the table or find a safe place to sleep you can’t just put it off till later. Life doesn’t work that way. The danger and risk inherent in not continuing to try to make a way is simply too great. As exhausting as the struggle may be, putting life off till later just isn’t an option.
People come to the SAF physically, emotionally and sometimes spiritually drowning, just trying to keep from getting pulled under. They come seeking a specific type of help: maybe help with a bill or something to eat. Some are looking for a safe place sleep. And this organization does all they can meet those needs and in the process their clients get an unexpected gift: an infusion of hope. They are giving people a chance to rest and setting them on a path to greater success.
We have the capacity to build hope in others. And it doesn’t matter who you are, hope benefits. Whether you perceive yourself as struggling or not. Even when things are good for us we’re hopeful that some things will happen and other things will not. But for people experiencing real hardship, hope is more: it’s how we push through tough times, and the beauty of it is everyone has access. No one can deprive you of hope, but sometimes in the midst of our struggles we’re overwhelmed and have a hard time taking hold of it. We can’t leverage hope to our advantage. That’s critically important because hope isn’t just optimism or wishful thinking. It’s focused. When you hope for something you know the thing you desire; you can imagine it, you can identify it and you can explain it. The goal is known and real. We only wish when not having a thing is kind of a foregone conclusion. We hope for what we can attain. Things we know are possible. And that difference means everything. It means hope is contagious. It means those of us who are hopeful can nurture that quality in others.
Psychologists say hope is composed of three things: goals, agency and pathways. Those are the three basic steps for building hope. This process of restoring hope is inherent in how SAF conducts business. The first thing you have to do is envision the future you want to realize and that’s one of the first things SAF case managers do with their clients. They sit down and start developing a list of short term and long term goals. They walk people through a process of imagining how they’d like to live their lives.
Some of us can take that for granted because we live in such a place of comfort that we can think about the future. Understand a person whose immediate need is a place to sleep tonight or where their next meal will come from doesn’t have the luxury of thinking about tomorrow, let alone a year from now. They have to focus their physical, mental and emotional energy on today. So, these case managers are pulling them from that bucket and giving them a moment of reprieve. Not just waiting to see what will happen, but prompting them to dream of what they desire their life to be, and reassuring them of the possibility of those ideas.
The second component of restoring hope is agency. That’s basically the idea that you can do something to bring about the change you want to see in your life. SAF acquaints their clients with this concept in the conversations about their clients’ strengths and victories that take place early in the process. What do you bring to the table that you can leverage to meet the goals you set? What tools do you have at your disposal? And what can you do, independent of everyone else, and unencumbered by your current circumstances that will move you closer to where you want to be. These don’t have to be profound revelations. It’s just taking ownership of your ability to affect change in your own life. Think about how empowering it is to embrace that notion. When faced with seemingly insurmountable odds, to seize your own power, armed with a definite understanding of how you intend to use it.
Pathways are how we got there. The plans that allow us to achieve our goals. SAF’s case managers also discuss with their clients the things that will help them achieve their goals. This is the actions phase, where they facilitate applying for jobs, pursuing different educational programs, getting a driver’s license, a bank account, counseling if they need it—taking the small steps that eventually lead to realizing the big dreams. And they don’t just write these plans, they facilitate each step and celebrate achievements along the way, even the small ones. And celebrations don’t mean big parties or public recognition. It can be something as simple as everyone on the case management team sending congratulatory text messages, a simple gift basket, little treat or just a hug. Those things are so meaningful, especially when you consider that people needing this kind of assistance sometimes don’t have strong social support systems, so they don’t get those little pats on the back many of us take for granted.
Most hopeful people tend to see multiple solutions to a problem, while the hopeless plan only for the best-case scenario and come up with just one or two ways to get what they want. The case managers help clients generate alternative solutions to their problems and help them plan for contingencies. They even have debt relief programs so their clients can save the money they need to move into a nice place instead of settling for whatever they can get. Whether it’s direct assistance or connecting clients to other resources, the SAF is creating pathways of hope; cultivating the motivation to keep focusing their energy on what can be instead of what has been.
The SAF is an organization that takes on cases for people that don’t qualify for other services. They step in and hit the pause button on people’s crises. They help them step back and see the big picture, then focus their energy and resources on growth and progress; but not just in a functional sense. The fact that they care about the people they serve is evident in their approach. Take for example a person hoping for a place to stay where they can he safe and comfortable while they put their lives back together. There’s a handful of places they could go and just get help. But when people walk into SAF’s fully furnished and fully equipped apartments, they often comment that it looks like they’re home.
You don’t walk into the typical homeless shelter and say it feels like home because home is both a physical place and a spiritual state of being. The typical shelter doesn’t have the aura of spiritual calm and emotional safety this organization affords its clients. That’s not coincidental; it’s the consequence of a focused effort to provide a higher level of support and service. This is just one of many examples of the care and love they put into this work.
Goals, Agency, Pathways. That’s hope in a nutshell. In the most basic sense, hope is just the motivation to keep trying. It shapes how we see ourselves, others and the world around us. Hope is contagious. Simply being around others who see potential and possibility in their lives has a ripple effect on yours. That effect is magnified when we’re deliberate about accentuating people’s past successes—even relatively small achievements can make people feel capable and remind them of what they can accomplish.
There are a lot of social service agencies out there. You ask for something, they meet the immediate need and send you on your way, often with a reminder of how long it will be before you qualify for assistance again. That’s not the mentality of the people at SAF. They’re committed to the people they serve with a deep-seated, personal interest in seeing their clients achieve lasting success. I know I don’t need to convince you this is an organization worthy of your support. I just wanted to shine a light on what I think is the most crucial and perhaps underappreciated aspect of the work they do.
In the Qur’an, Allah (SWT) gives the parable of a seed that’s planted and grows seven ears of corn, each of which produces a hundred kernels, just to demonstrate how he multiplies good works. In a similar way, the hopefulness cultivated at SAF is also multiplied exponentially. Because hopeful people, recognizing the positive effects on their lives, grow hope in others.
In a sense, SAF is training stewards of hope that will go out and touch the lives of other people. Sometimes we do a small thing, like a smile or a kind word, not knowing how it will move through the world.
On the day of judgement people will be shocked when they’re greeted by mountains of good they didn’t even know about. Remember, the Prophet guaranteed Jannah to a prostitute for giving a thirsty dog a sip of water from her shoe. What must be the reward of giving someone hope? Please, continue to support the phenomenal work of the Surayya Anne Foundation. It’s remarkably important, it’s life-changing and it’s a labor of love and passion for everything involved.
Raja'ee Fatihah is a native of Tulsa and a graduate of the University of Oklahoma. As the Vice Chair of Oklahoma CAIR, he is an advocate for personal health, civic engagement, voter registration, and public education initiatives. Fatihah currently lives in Tulsa with his wife and four children.