Johns Hopkins Bayview Initiative Builds Bonds in the Islamic Community

Lay Health Educator Program helps community leaders become health advocates.

Published in Dome - Community Issue 2017

Zakia Amin has taught in the 40-student Islamic Community School since 1980 and has been principal since 2004. She notices when a child asks to sit in the front of the classroom because the words on the blackboard have grown blurry. She knows when a grandparent has died or when parents are getting divorced.

She remembers one family, refugees from Iraq, who were so terrified of being separated from each other that the children only went on school field trips if the rest of the family came along.  

Amin now has more training to help families like these.

She recently completed a Lay Health Educator Program (LHEP) organized by nursing and medical students from Johns Hopkins University.

LHEP provides health education for community leaders, who then become health advocates for their friends, family members, students and congregants. It’s part of Medicine for the Greater Good, a Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center-based initiative that builds connections between Johns Hopkins and its surrounding communities.

“The whole purpose is to give you skills and knowledge to help your community,” says internist Panagis Galiatsatos, co-founder and co-director of Medicine for the Greater Good. “You know your community better than we do.”

In weekly gatherings at the Masjid Al-Ihsan mosque in Baltimore’s Gwynn Oak neighborhood, Amin and about a dozen other LHEP participants learned about topics such as how to manage hypertension, get cancer screenings, and recognize signs of mental distress. The sessions were informal, with plenty of questions from participants.

At one meeting, nursing student Katelyn Tracy discussed health care access, touching on insurance options and offering advice on when to choose an urgent care clinic over a hospital emergency room. Some participants, sitting at cafeteria-style tables in the mosque’s community room, asked about finding doctors who respect their use of herbal remedies.

“If you don’t trust your doctor, find a new one,” said Galiatsatos. “Make sure your voice is heard. If you’re offended, you have the wrong doctor.”

Galiatsatos said his mother, a native of Greece, believes chamomile tea will cure everything. He respects her views but still recommends antibiotics when appropriate.

The bonds between hospital and community continue after the education sessions end. On a rainy August morning, Galiatsatos brings three cardboard boxes carrying 40 nylon book bags to the Islamic Community School on West North Avenue. Each student knapsack had been stuffed by Bayview volunteers with school supplies like crayons and rulers.

Each one also contains a sheet of paper titled Healthy School Year Checklist, with simple advice for kids (exercise, get enough sleep) and adults (get flu shots, schedule screenings for high blood pressure, diabetes and cancer).

“What better way to get a healthy message across than to tuck it in with some school supplies,” Galiatsatos says to Amin, who is getting the school, for grades 1 through 12, ready for the academic year with help from her husband Hassan Amin, the school’s counselor.

The Amins plan to bring Galiatsatos and other Hopkins Bayview doctors to some of the school’s monthly parent meetings, to talk about topics like vision screening, cancer and mental illness, which Zakia Amin says is often ignored in the Muslim community because it can be “seen by some as a sign of weakness of faith.”

In addition to his work with the school, Hassan Amin is the imam at Johns Hopkins University and The Johns Hopkins Hospital, and executive director of the Muslim Social Services Agency, a Baltimore nonprofit he founded in 2003 that serves more than 2,000 people a year, including about 250 refugees. 

He and about 10 volunteers with the agency became lay health educators to help refugees secure insurance and medical care. “Many of the refugees are still traumatized by what they’ve been through,” he says. “They come here with little more than the clothes on their backs.”

After Galiatsatos leaves, Zakia Amin looks around at the empty desks and the walls decorated with posters and calendars. School would start in a few weeks.

“I think the community outreach is really needed,” she says. “It is appreciated. Sometimes people are hesitant to seek medical attention, but when the medical staff of the hospital come to the community, it strengthens trust and builds a bond.”