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May 25, 2024

San Antonio’s Muslim-led, free healthcare clinic

The doctors who run the El Bari clinic see healthcare as a right — and they’re determined to make it available to the most vulnerable.

The El Bari Community Health Center is one of the only entirely free clinics in San Antonio that offers patients access to almost any specialist they might need. Yet it is not well known.

The minuscule clinic is tucked away on the Muslim Children Education and Civic Center (MCECC) campus on the northwest corner of town. The clinic’s volunteer doctors are Muslim, and most of the funding comes from within the Muslim community, but its patients are ethnically and religiously diverse.

“The Muslim religion tells us to take care of humanity,” said Dr. Suhaib Haq, who helped found El Bari four years ago. “It says if you save one person, you save all of humankind.”

Anti-Muslim sentiments loom large in the United States; 68 percent of Muslims in America are afraid of the Trump administration, 75 percent said the Muslim community faces a lot of discrimination and 50 percent said that life has become harder for Muslims in America in recent years, according to the Pew Research Center.

While some data shows that Americans are viewing Muslims more favorably in the past — 41 percent of Americans said Islam was a violent religion in 2017, compared to 50 percent in 2014, according to the Pew Research Center — Federal Bureau of Investigation data shows that hate crimes against the Muslim community are increasing.

Indeed, more than 15 years after 9/11, Islamophobia could be present among the people these doctors want to help.

Haq acknowledged that his community suffers from a bad reputation at times, but said that they “just have to keep doing good until we are recognized for it.”

Otherwise, the doctors did not say much about this subject; whenever it was brought up they seemed more interested in talking about the clinic. They seemed surprised at the question, and they see their work at El Bari in the same way they see their day-to-day work — giving healthcare for free is just part of what it means to be a doctor.

The clinic currently is open 11 a.m.–2 p.m. Friday and Sunday and sees about 10 patients each day. Most patients schedule appointments ahead of time, and the clinic only serves walk-ins if it is able to. Among the 10 doctors, most specializations are covered, from pulmonology to endocrinology. All the doctors are volunteers; they have full-time jobs and families that they take time away from to work at the clinic.

Haq has long dreamed of opening an entirely free hospital. His wife, Dr. Sarah Samreen, said he had gotten stuck in the planning and dreaming phase, so when they had a chance to open the clinic with the MCECC, she pushed him to jump in.

Drs. Haq and Samreen have experience in offering free healthcare, first in their home country of Pakistan, and also in treating triage victims at Randolph Air Force Base after Hurricane Katrina. Now their commitment has led them to El Bari, where Samreen also volunteers. The couple and the other doctors at the clinic see El Bari as the first step toward creating an eventual free hospital.

“Health care is everyone’s right,” Haq said. “God gave us health, and we are here to maintain that. There shouldn’t be a charge for that.”

Equipment and supplies are in short supply at El Bari. The doctors donate most of what is used —  everything from free medical samples to old computers. They have worked out partnerships with the University of the Incarnate Word and other organizations to get their patients things like cheap eye wear or reduced-cost labs. The MCECC pays for overhead costs like electricity.

Dr. Nasir Syed, a pulmonologist with his own practice in Live Oak, will load up patients and take them to his office to use his personal equipment when needed, he said.

“If they don’t have money, what’s the big deal?” Syed said. “My profession is not about earning money and spending money.”

Michael Elashy, a north side resident, has been a patient at El Bari for a year. The doctors have been helping him manage his hypertension. He said he has no health insurance and makes very little money – he used to be a manager at an ice cream shop, but now he is trying to go back to school.

He is not alone; one in five Bexar County residents do not have health insurance, according to the Texas Medical Association.

“They’re awesome here,” Elashy said. “There are a few different doctors and they are all great.”

Soon, likely early next year, the building will be demolished and the space will be turned into a youth center.

While Syed, who is on the MCECC board, said there will always be a place for El Bari on the campus, but the doctors decided this moment was an opportunity to branch out. Haq and the other doctors have been fundraising to purchase a mobile unit that will travel throughout San Antonio.

Lynda Gonzalez / Folo Media

They want to reach vulnerable populations in the west, east and south parts of the city. The doctors have been fundraising since early fall. Originally, the plan was to purchase the unit by now, but fundraising and finding the right unit is taking longer than anticipated.

So far, they have raised about $57,000 of the $75,000 needed to purchase a unit and cover the operation costs for the first three years. The clinic was scheduled to be torn down in December, but that, too, is running behind schedule.

When they get the mobile clinic – they are currently looking at a unit in North Carolina – they hope to set up in church parking lots and offer clinics for low-income neighborhoods. They feel like partnering with churches will help the community accept them.

“We want (the communities) to understand we are here to help, not to hurt,” Syed said. “At the end of the day, we are all humans. We carry the same heart and the same soul.”

Haq said they are a little concerned about how the communities might initially receive them, but he believes that once people see they are there to help, they will be welcomed.

“Some people look at us like, ‘What is your motive?’” Syed said. “In the conscious world we are in, we are not sure how it will go, but I tell you, we are trying to work with other religions in the name of humanity.

“When you help people, then they understand it is all about humanity.”

The article was published at San Antonio’s Muslim-led, free healthcare clinic.

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