Being a Muslim American teenager can be tricky work.
Like most people who are in the minority in their community, I feel a strong pressure to represent Muslims well in all my actions. It can be exhausting. But in the last year, this pressure has surfaced in a new way, which I’ve wholeheartedly embraced. And it’s come mostly from something I would never have expected: latex gloves.
Let’s rewind. Just over two years ago, I was in a skiing accident and I tore my ACL. Twice. During my many hospital visits around my repair surgeries, I noticed something: waste. Giant plastic bags and piles of items thrown away after each appointment, including instruments that were still lying on the table. I started researching and learned that hospitals in the US produce almost six million tons of garbage each year. And that’s just hospitals, not all the other medical facilities in the US.
I knew some of it was really and truly trash, but I also started to notice that a lot of it wasn’t.
I started learning about what I could do and realized that medical items that were used, expired, or even brand new were pretty tricky to donate in the US. But I started thinking about an animal clinic where my brother had volunteered in Thailand and reached out. The dog shelter was happy to have anything I could send . So I started asking around. At first, I talked to my own dentist, doctor, and our vet, and I realized that most places were happy to give me at least one big bag or box of items.
It kind of took over my life.
If I thought it had taken over then, I had no idea what was coming. The American Medical Association and the American Veterinary Medical Association changed their recommendation about sterile gloves, recommending against powdered gloves. And all the sudden, I realized that millions of gloves that could save lives all over the world were about to end up in the garbage.
It was a busy few months with giant donations collected and sent off to veterinary projects in Mexico, the Caribbean, Thailand, Cambodia, and Myanmar. It was terrible, however, realizing that for every box I saved, a thousand were going in the garbage. I did what I could, and then I realized that my power would be magnified if I got others organized. I started reaching out to animal groups on college campuses and providing them with everything I’d learned about collecting, sorting, distributing, and tracking donations.
We now have 57 chapters across the US, I called the organization “27 Heartbeats” because the first donation helped to save the lives of 27 dogs in a clinic. Did I say it was out of control before?
So what does the fact that latex gloves have overtaken my life have to do with being Muslim? The main aim was to reduce waste, improve animal health, and have a positive impact on the environment. And yet, people are so surprised to learn that I’m a Muslim and an environmentalist. It hadn’t occurred to me that people would be surprised, and it definitely hadn’t occurred to me that they would be that surprised.
I love that my faith and my environmentalism align.
In the Quran, it says that all animals are part of Allah’s creation and belong to Allah, and as Muslims, we are only the custodians of Earth. One of my favorite quotes is ‘whoever is kind to the creatures of God, is kind to himself’, and I’m always surprised when other Americans find a conflict between religion and faith. Somehow the political machine and the media have convinced us that faith and science are at odds. But it makes sense to me that if you believe God has created the Earth, you would feel a special responsibility to care for it as best you could with any wisdom and resources you could find.
I work with a number of Christian organizations to distribute supplies, as they often have a large missionary network on the ground. I also donate the biggest percentage of supplies to Thailand, which is a Buddhist country. It has meant a lot of working across cultures and faiths, and a lot more being an ambassador for Islam than I expected. I was resentful of this responsibility at first, but now I try to look at it as an opportunity. I get to teach people that Islam and environmentalism go hand in hand, that Muslims can be good and caring people who want to make a positive impact. 27 Heartbeats is a great vehicle for gently convincing and educating others because the only thing we’re asking for is trash and if your trash is going to save someone’s life, it’s pretty hard not to hand it over.
As I continue to grow the organization, I want to branch beyond campus animal organizations and start reaching out to religious organizations of all kinds and asking for their help. I think calling on people of faith to care for the Earth and do our best to steward the resources with which we’ve been entrusted may help to prove that of course faith and science don’t have to be seen as enemies.
Maybe if we can all agree to share our life-saving garbage, that can be an easy first step.