Hajjah Miniimah Bilal-Elahi: Fostering a Voice

Hajjah Miniimah waved to get my attention and called me over to talk to her. She previously took interest in Imam Khalil’s announcement of our team’s arrival and told me that she’s currently writing a book about her own life story and was willing to share with us. I pulled up a chair and sat facing her. She reached into her bag and pulled out a draft design for her book’s cover. On the page was a drawing of a young girl writing a letter. Above the girl’s head, the book’s title read “Dear Daddy, Dear Mommy Why Did I Grow Up as a Foster Child?”


Hajjah Miniimah was put into foster care the day she was born. She moved to 11 different foster homes growing up. The back cover of her book design shows a young girl walking on a sidewalk towards a mosque in the distance. In one hand the girl is hold a small briefcase; in the other hand she has a brown paper bag. Miniimah said that whenever she moved from one home to the next, all her belongings had to fit into those two small bags, if they didn’t she couldn’t take them with her.

Today Miniimah is 60 years old. She is a beautiful soul that has dedicated her life to helping members of the community. She’s been a private-duty nurse for the past 35 years but is considering changing careers to be a life coach for people coming from troubled backgrounds. However, she says that no matter what other career paths she takes in the future, she will never give up her nursing license.

Miniimah’s passion for helping others also showed itself in the volunteer work she talked about. She often visits people in prisons, those struggling with drug addiction, as well as HIV-positive people to help them deal with their challenges.

Sister Miniimah became a Muslim in 1975 after finding herself in a Nation of Islam mosque with a comforting sense of community. She said that the family life at the mosque filled her void of not ever having a family– “Islam is what saved my life.”

The book she is writing details her struggles growing up as a foster child. She briefly recounted a few of her hardships and challenges that she experienced at a young age, but added that despite all of these, she cannot just sit back and complain about her childhood. Miniimah discourages others from doing so as well. She now invests her energy into helping people through their difficulties while still finding time to look for answers to her own past. She recently took a trip to Puerto Rico in search of more clues about her family’s history. As she finds more information she hopes to include it in the book she’s writing in order to share her story with others.

Her life’s focus around stories quickly stuck out to me. She was someone with an incredible story, yet she still focused much of her life around others and the stories that they shared. I told with her the uneasiness I was feeling about holding and processing the stories of others in my head, a concern I voiced in my first blog post of the trip. I asked for her advice on this problem and specifically how she felt writing her story for people who will never truly understand what her life was like. She responded by saying that the wisdom lays in simply recognizing that we will not ever fully understand another person’s life. We should still open up and tell our stories, she said, because though each individual story may not be fully understood, once the collection of patches are put together, our general understanding grows into a beautiful quilt. It seemed that she was telling me not to worry too much about my inability to completely understand what life in 11 foster homes might be like; simply listening to the story and acknowledging my limited ability to empathize suffices. Other people’s life stories are where we learn the important lessons of life—“This is the school. This is your enrichment. This is your education.” Her response put me at ease.

Miniimah carries around multiple bags filled with folders and papers – she laughed and said she’s “become a bag lady.” She pulls out from her bag one more sheet of paper to give to me. This one she calls her Affirmation. She wrote it for herself and regularly reads it to help get her through the daily challenges that come up.