On a sloppy spring day in mid-March, hundreds of Kurdish Americans gathered in a field outside Nashville, Tennessee, under a sea of black umbrellas. Some of the men carried a stretcher to an open grave, where a yellow backhoe waited.
In accordance with Muslim tradition, the body of Imad Doski — a prominent community leader — was buried within 24 hours of his death. He was another casualty of covid-19.
“It hit people. They saw it happen to one of them,” said Faiza Rashid, a nurse practitioner at the Amed Family Clinic, the Kurdish-run medical practice in town. “It hit home.”
Doski’s death just six weeks ago became a wake-up call for many in Nashville’s Kurdish community — the largest in the U.S. The community has been growing and thriving since a wave of Kurdish refugees started arriving 30 years ago, fleeing Saddam Hussein and the Gulf War.
Doski was part of that early wave of immigrants, and he helped start the Salahadeen Center, which serves as a mosque, religious school and community center for Nashville-area Kurds.
Doski’s untimely death — he was in his mid-50s and relatively healthy — persuaded many Kurds to be more open to the idea of vaccination, according to Rashid. After his death, the Salahadeen Center worked with the city health department to schedule on-site vaccination events.
Questions About Vaccination During Ramadan
Immigrants were expected to have more vaccine hesitancy than most Americans.
But as Kurdish residents in Nashville have started to come around, new questions emerge. A top concern is how the vaccine interacts with the religious obligations of the month of Ramadan, which runs through mid-May.
Many Muslims are careful not to break their daily sunrise-to-sunset fast, and some interpret that as refraining from anything that enters the body. The local imam weighed in, saying the vaccine does not count as nutrition. Other Muslim leaders around the world have also found ways to make an exception for the vaccine.
There’s also concern that if the post-vaccination side effects become fairly severe, such as a fever, Muslims might have to break their fast to hydrate. This is typically allowed when someone gets sick during Ramadan, but the whole day has to be made up later in the year.
Nurse practitioner Redor Abdullah said he’s been telling Muslims who hold more conservative interpretations not to risk waiting on the vaccine, even for a few more weeks.
“I would recommend you get it and make up your fast another day,” he said. “It’s better than getting the virus.”
Some Refugees Have Had Traumatic Experiences With Health Care
Nashville’s public health department has had to lean on health care workers in the Kurdish community because it doesn’t have Kurdish workers of its own.
At the Salahadeen Center vaccination events, the people giving the shots are mostly white and English-speaking, with one standout exception: Sumaya Muhamed, a pre-med college student who is Kurdish American. She’s been trained to give covid shots because she also works part time at a pharmacy.
“About 70% of the people who go to Salahadeen are just Kurdish-speaking, so they would all be at my table, because nobody else knew how to help them,” she said.
Their need for cultural assistance goes beyond practical questions about safety. Muhamed explains that many of them are sorting through past trauma related to time spent in refug
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