The shingled Victorian house on Intervale Street has a purple door, a symbol of hope. The Basmala — a phrase recited when reading the Koran, “In the name of God, the most gracious, the most merciful” — decorates a wall in the foyer. In the children’s playroom, “My First Prophet Muhammad Storybook” shares space with “Guess Who, Elmo!”
The Amal (Arabic for “hope”) Women’s Center is Boston’s first Muslim-run homeless shelter for women and children, a place where Muslim women who have fallen on hard times may feel especially at home.
“We really wanted to provide a space that gives women the opportunity to heal, to feel respected, to preserve their dignity, and to give them the opportunity to develop themselves,” said Malika MacDonald, the national director of the nonprofit organization overseeing the shelter.
The shelter, which quietly opened its doors last week in advance of an official celebration this weekend, will house up to 12 women and children, normally for six months or less. It is open to women of all faiths, but its sensibility is distinctly Muslim.
The kitchen does not adhere to strict religious dietary guidelines, but pork, which is forbidden in Islam, is not allowed. Islamic art and calligraphy grace the walls. Staff members and many of the guests wear hijabs.
MacDonald’s organization, the Islamic Circle of North America Relief USA’s Transitional Housing Network, secured a 10-year lease from the Masjid al-Qur’aan mosque, which owns the property and sits next door. Originally affiliated with the Nation of Islam, the mosque has been a Sunni community for decades.
The Amal Women’s Center is not equipped to handle more complex security issues confronting women fleeing domestic violence, or to address the health needs of the severely mentally ill, MacDonald said. But it aims to offer weekly counseling and other services to help women find steady work and stable housing.
Aliyah Banister, a licensed clinical therapist who will offer weekly counseling sessions, said that as a counselor at a similar shelter in Chicago, she found that homeless Muslim women find it a relief to not have to explain or defend religious practices such as wearing a headscarf in the presence of men who are not relatives.
“When you’re going through something, it’s hard to have to explain, ‘These are my needs, this is what my cultural background is,’ ” she said.
The project began six years ago, when Mona Salem, then a 20-year-old Egyptian-American college student, was trying to help a young Muslim friend who wanted to escape a foster home where she felt unsafe.
Salem thought her friend would feel most comfortable in a Muslim-run shelter for women, but soon discovered none existed in Boston. So she began raising money to start one, and teamed up with MacDonald and her organization.
Early on, Masjid al-Qur’aan offered the use of the building. It was informally being used as a place for men in the community who needed a temporary place to live, but it had a storied history. Previously, it had housed the Sister Clara Muhammad School, the first Islamic school in Massachusetts; earlier, as a minister’s quarters, Minister Louis Farrakhan lived there, and the residence also hosted Malcolm X when he preached in Boston, and Muhammad Ali did a fund-raiser for the mosque there.
The building was dilapidated when those planning the shelter began its conversion — crumbling ceilings, mold in the basement, leaks in the roof, MacDonald said. About $220,000 was raised, all in individual contributions, to pay for the renovation. It wound up being gutted to its frame and horsehair insulation; the interior became a massive communitywide “labor of love,” MacDonald said.
Donations poured in from every direction. Dishes and pots and pans for the kitchen arrived from families affiliated with the Framingham and Wayland mosques. A man offered his Home Depot credit card to pay for lighting. Various groups and individuals sponsored each of the bedrooms, furnishing them with bright-colored bedding and art for the walls.
Salem said she was near tears when she saw the finished house the other day.
“That place was a dump when we first got there, and now it’s beautiful — absolutely beautiful,” she said. “That says a lot about . . . how strong we are as a community to help one another.”
Help arrived from beyond the local Muslim community as well. An artist in Texas sent an Arabesque Moroccan ceiling medallion for the living room. A board member of the interfaith group Kids4Peace Boston donated a lacquered dining table and banquette. The founder of a planned shelter for transgender people in Indiana sent along bathroom towels, MacDonald said.
MacDonald said sustaining the shelter will cost about $125,000 a year. Her organization hopes to raise money through donations, community fund-raisers, and perhaps grants.
Several days ago, the first residents arrived. One was Samyha, a 27-year-old single mother who requested that only her first name be published to protect her privacy, and her 5-year-old son, Jeremyha.
When her time ran out in a two-year subsidized housing program, Samyha, who holds a part-time job at her son’s day care and recently started another at a pizzeria, found herself unable to afford rent. She was staying with friends before she found the Amal shelter.
Samyha worries that she sticks out as someone who is not Muslim, and that her son might be seen as disrespectful if he forgets to wash his hands or jumps on the new furniture. But she is spiritual and prays regularly, doesn’t eat pork, and wraps her head.
“It’s not a forced religion thing,” she said. “But it’s peaceful, relaxing.”
She has some training as a chef, and dreams of one day using her cake-decorating skills to run a bakery truck.
“I’m thankful,” she said, her eyes filling with tears. But she is hoping to find a permanent home for her small family soon.Lisa Wangsness can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.