A New Kind of Unity in Long-Divided Richmond

Jan 3, 2022 | Features

Like America as a whole, Richmond has a long way to go to achieve unity. Not just between Black and White people, but among the many ethnicities, cultures and faith groups that now call the city home. If Hamna Saleem has anything to do with it, Richmond will get there one day soon.

Hamna Saleem, Photo credit: Kimberly Frost Photography

Special to the Philanthropy Journal

By Erich Bridges

Here’s the PR spin on contemporary Richmond, Virginia’s capital city: It has put its painful, racist past behind it for good and emerged as an exciting, diverse, progressive destination for young business entrepreneurs, hipsters, foodies and film-makers.

It sounds great, and plenty of folks, both locals and come-heres, began to believe it.

Then came the summer of 2020, when George Floyd choked to death under the knee of a Minneapolis cop later convicted of murder. Cities across the country exploded in despair and anger – including Richmond, which saw weeks of protests calling for change, along with some rioting and looting.

The protests in Richmond also focused on the statues glorifying Confederate heroes that have dominated the city’s stately Monument Avenue – and too often, its mindset – since Jim Crow days. The statues have finally come down, but the long-time rap on Richmond has re-emerged: The one-time capital of the Confederacy has yet to overcome its past and remains divided – racially, economically and culturally.

So which is true, the PR spin or the rap?

Both have elements of truth. Richmond has come a long way. But like America as a whole, it has a long way to go to achieve unity. Not just between Black and White people, but among the many ethnicities, cultures and faith groups that now call the city home.

If Hamna Saleem has anything to do with it, Richmond will get there one day soon.

Saleem, 26, is proudly Muslim. She wears hijab, the traditional head covering for Muslim women that symbolizes modesty and submission to God. But she belies the stereotype that Muslim women are permitted only to serve the needs of their husbands and children within the home. She serves needy people all over the city.

Saleem directs outreach for the Richmond office of ICNA Relief, or “Muslims for Humanity,” an arm of the Islamic Circle of North America that aids people in crisis. ICNA Relief is active in more than 30 states, operating food pantries, transitional housing for women, health clinics, skill development programs, disaster relief services, refugee assistance and other programs.

Hamna Saleem, Photo credit: Kimberly Frost Photography

Saleem might be young, but she’s already a veteran of helping people in need.

“I grew up in New Jersey and was part of the [ICNA] umbrella organization, sort of their youth group,” she says. “After Hurricane Sandy was when they really became active in New Jersey, so my family helped with food distributions in Atlantic City.”

After completing her university studies and getting married, she joined the Richmond office in April 2021. ICNA Relief began providing emergency food through local mosques to needy families in the Richmond area – regardless of their religious affiliation – when COVID-19 swept through the nation a year before. Now it operates a warehouse (Saleem’s base of operations) filled with food and other basic supplies.

As the worst of the initial COVID crisis has receded, another need has arisen: the arrival of more than 70,000 Afghan refugees in America following the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan last summer. Most of the Afghans have passed through military bases (including Fort Lee, Fort Pickett and Marine Base Quantico in Virginia) for processing and orientation. Now they’re resettling in local communities – including Richmond, which anticipates more than 1,000 new arrivals will join the growing Afghan population already living there.

After fleeing their homeland, Afghan families need everything: housing, food, medical assistance, help getting kids into school, English teaching, job and driver training. Saleem is involved in all of it, partnering with other Richmond-based charities, mosques, churches and resettlement agencies. Still recovering from the anti-immigrant policies of the Trump era, every agency working with refugees is overwhelmed with the task.

“In Richmond, there’s a lot of chaos, especially in trying to find affordable housing,” Saleem admits. “But we’re here to help, and we can provide you with the food you need, the halal meat [prepared according to Islamic standards] you require in your diet and so on. We’re taking them to the mosque for Friday prayers, helping them enter and mingle with the community.

Photo credit: Kimberly Frost Photography

“If we can provide them with mops, brooms, vacuums, simple bedding, diapers, hygiene products, warm jackets and shoes for winter, then that doesn’t have to come out of their [limited, government-provided] welcome money. It’s really a big full circle. We’re all pitching in to make sure that their transition goes well, because they’ve already gone through so much trauma.”

Saleem remembers one desperate Afghan family at the hospital with a sick daughter. They had already seen one child die of a treatable illness in Afghanistan because of lack of medical care. “I can’t bear to lose another child,” the father told a volunteer.

“I don’t have children yet, but I could never imagine the pain of losing a child so long,” Saleem reflects. The volunteer visited later to check up on the family. The little girl was playing, laughing and looking healthy.

Saleem’s work goes beyond basic emergency relief. If these Afghan families – and refugees from other places, including non-Muslims – make a decent start in Richmond, they will become productive community members, business owners, leaders.

“It’s not just about being in communities but becoming a part of communities,” Saleem stresses. “We’re helping everybody, regardless of their color, faith or where they’re coming from.”

How are Richmonders responding? “There’s been overwhelming support,” Saleem says. “There’s an overwhelming sense of, ‘How can we help?’”

That’s the kind of community-building Richmond needs.


Erich Bridges, a nonprofit journalist for more than 40 years, has covered stories in many countries about disaster relief and humanitarian work, development, education, medical care and Christian missions. He lives in Richmond, Va.

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