The following article was originally posted in the Tulsa World newspaper.
In September, Atlanta native Davanna Brooks was seven months pregnant and sleeping in a park with her husband and their young daughter. The couple found themselves homeless and unable to find long-term help from family members or shelters in their community. "It was very hard. I'd never had to do anything like that before. I called my dad, who is a pastor, and he turned us away. I called my mom, and she turned us away," said Brooks, who recently converted to Islam. "I cried and felt like I had hit rock bottom." Brooks said she doesn't know why her family turned them away. Perhaps it was her change in faith but, she said, she doesn't want to believe her parents are that "shallow." Brooks and her family spent two weeks homeless before a friend reached out on social media and found the Surayya Anne Foundation, a nonprofit agency in Tulsa that was willing to help. The foundation sent a bus ticket for her and her daughter, and soon after for her husband, and brought them to Tulsa, where they moved into a furnished apartment. "When I got here, I had a 1-year-old and was pregnant. I'd never been away from home before and was scared," she said. "I thought I'd be going to a shelter, but when I got to the apartment, it set in that these are people who will help me. ... It took me by surprise that people I didn't know in a whole other state could help me."
The Surayya Anne Foundation was formed six years ago with a three-bedroom, two-bath apartment in south Tulsa. Throughout that first year, the agency housed 15 women and their 10 children. Now, the foundation has six apartments that it rents and furnishes. Last year, it provided assistance to 506 clients of all faiths, with either shelter or bill-paying assistance, said Heera Sheikh, the foundation's board president. "We do what we can to help get them back on their feet," Sheikh said. "We have really improved the lives of some of these people. It's been great seeing the community come together and help us with these needs." The foundation works with several agencies to help provide support, including the 211 Helpline, Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma, DVIS, the Islamic Society of Tulsa and the Oklahoma Department of Corrections. Its largest clientele base is homeless women. "We take in impoverished families, the mentally ill, the homeless. People think we deal with domestic violence, but that's 3 percent of our clients over a year," Sheikh said. "We work a lot with homeless and formerly incarcerated women and their families with no place to go." The agency is hoping to complete the purchase of a property this spring that will allow it to build a homeless shelter - the first Muslim-faith shelter in the state - that would allow it to house 14 women at a time.
"We're trying to find a lot and start from the ground up," Sheikh said. "This is something we've wanted to do for a long time but haven't had the funding." Once the lot is purchased, it would take about a year to construct the shelter. Last year, the foundation received more than 1,000 calls from those seeking assistance. The foundation is volunteer-run except for a part-time case manager. "We have to be proactive, and we help them get back on their feet with anything they need in order to get them back up and running and back in society," Sheikh said. "I've seen people from amazing backgrounds end up in a shelter. People assume they are bums or lazy, but I can vouch that that is not the case." Brooks is now working at an area restaurant, and her husband is doing contract work while they get back on their feet. She hopes to continue her schooling and become a teacher in the future. "She's integrated back into society because we gave her the opportunity," Sheikh said. "In Islam, it's an obligation to take care of the needy. That's why we get a lot of support from our community. If you know someone is struggling, you help them. That's an obligation for us."