This Story About a Muslim-Run Free Clinic Needs to be Told

Matt Colaciello talks about the imperative to bring visibility to this positive story about Muslim Americans. And it's personal.

Matt Colaciello | February 25, 2018

Hanna, office volunteer at the Muslim American Social Services Clinic in Jacksonville, FL

Hanna, office volunteer at the Muslim American Social Services Clinic in Jacksonville, FL

Chances are you’ve never heard about the Muslim-run free clinic in your region. In my hometown, Jacksonville, FL, few people know about the Muslim American Social Services Clinic (MASS) in our community. Our new documentary is going to change that.

I’ve teamed up with cinematographer Jake Lewis, lawyer Asghar Syed, and the staff at MASS to make Unconditional Care, a short film that will bring visibility to the clinic while contributing a positive and nuanced representation of Muslim Americans to a mediascape saturated with stereotypes, assumptions, and outright lies. What follows is the story of my personal journey to try to play a role in changing our misinformed national discourse on Islam—and end the violence it inspires.

On May 26th last year, two men were murdered by a white supremacist on a train in Portland, Oregon. One of them had been my student.

While sitting on the commuter train, Taliesin Namkai Meche saw Jeremy Joseph Christian yelling racist and Islamophobic slurs at two young women of color, one of whom was wearing a hijab. Never one to fear the consequences of acting in service of justice, Taliesin stood up, put his body between the man and the two girls, and told him to leave them alone. An altercation ensued. Two other bystanders emerged from the crowd to aid Taliesin but Christian pulled out a knife and slashed all three of the men’s bodies. When the train stopped, he fled, followed by witnesses who made sure he didn't get away. But for Taliesin it was too late. He laid bleeding heavily in the arms of a passenger. "Tell everyone on this train I love them," he told her. And then he lost consciousness. 


"'Tell everyone on this train I love them,' he told her. And then he lost consciousness."


Taliesin was a magical person. People called him a wizard. He was a storyteller with a smart sense of humor but also an abiding sense of the mystical. When he was my student on a semester abroad in Indonesia in 2011, Taliesin was grappling with how to confront the challenges of our tumultuous world with heart and integrity. He and I spent many hours sitting together talking about existence, meditation, Sufism, cynicism, mythology, activism, love. At the end of the semester, I wrote to Taliesin that being his instructor was like receiving a handful of precious heirloom seeds and having the opportunity to cultivate them in the rich soil of Indonesia.

I was in San Diego on a film shoot when I heard the news of Taliesin's death. A few days later, in a state of shock, I flew to Portland for his memorial service. All of the students from Taliesin’s semester in Indonesia flew in too. It was a bittersweet reunion. We stayed together at the home of my former co-instructor and spent three days cooking, reminiscing, breaking down, laughing, and breaking down again. Jake, a UCLA film school grad who had been Taliesin's friend on the semester, asked if I was working on any film projects he could help with. When I told him about the MASS documentary he signed on almost immediately. We'd dedicate the project to Taliesin, we decided.


"Sometimes artists do projects on a whim. THis is not one of those times."


Sometimes artists do projects on a whim. This is not one of those times. I'm not Muslim but my relationship to Islam, my respect and admiration for Muslims, began when I was a kid. On a Friday in the summer of 1999, my friend Rummi brought me along to evening prayers at the Islamic Center of Northeast Florida. After prayer, we sat for a talk by a visiting Koranic scholar. We were 13-years-old. I see that day as the beginning of a life full of Muslim friends, of learning languages peppered with Arabic words, and of continually coming upon evidence of the greatness of Islamic civilizations.

Faisal Shah, MASS Clinic founder

Faisal Shah, MASS Clinic founder

During the two decades since my first visit to the center, I've studied and worked in two majority Muslim countries, Mali and Indonesia, as well as in India, whose Muslim population is larger than most countries. Admittedly, I didn't go to Mali, India, or Indonesia because of an interest in Islam per se. It just so happens—must it even be said?—that among Muslims there are musicians and dancers, activists and change makers, writers, teachers, scientists, and plain ol' great people who I aspire to be like. They are who I went to live, learn, and work alongside. And they are who I think of every time hatred for Muslims is invoked or violently expressed in the United States. 


"I moved back to Florida from Indonesia in the fall of 2015—just in time for a campaign season replete with Islamophobia..."


I moved back to Florida from Indonesia in the fall of 2015—just in time for a political campaign season replete with Islamophobic rhetoric that correlated to a well documented surge in hate crimes targeting Muslims. A month before the election, I was relieved to have the opportunity to do something to counter the hate. Working with an organization called EmergeUSA (now Emgage), I traveled the United States to film and photograph Muslim American community leaders and create social media content encouraging Muslim voters to go the polls.

On that trip, I met brilliant young Muslim organizers, business owners who had been threatened at gunpoint by white supremacists, imams and school teachers working to counter the completely out of control public discourse about their religion. I interviewed Rashida Tlaib, Michigan's first Muslim female state representative, and Rep. Keith Ellison, the second ever Muslim member of Congress and current deputy chair of the DNC. In the weeks before what would turn out to be a nightmare election for Muslim Americans (and so many others), my sense of connection to the Muslim community across the U.S. grew exponentially. Their work to assert their civil liberties makes me proud to be an American. 

Isedra, patient at MASS

Isedra, patient at MASS

When I returned to Jacksonville after the election, it was clear to me that our Muslim community could use more allies. There are fewer Muslims here than in Detroit, New York, Houston, or D.C. and the activist community, Muslim and non-Muslim, is also comparatively quite small. Add to that a local history of intimidation and violence, and you can see why organizing and consciousness raising are both challenging and very very needed here. 

During those unsettling first months of what continues to feel like a backslide in American history, a new reckoning with old demons, Asghar and I started talking about the work of angels. Asghar is a civically engaged Pakistani American lawyer. He was exploring every opportunity to advocate for the local and national Muslim community. MASS was at the top of his list. 


"If ever there were incontrovertible truth that could cut through ignorance, hatred, and fear, the story of MASS is pervaded by it."


If ever there were incontrovertible truth that could cut through ignorance, hatred, and fear, the story of MASS is pervaded by it. In 2010, the Islamic Center of Northeast Florida was fire bombed in a hate crime. That event was widely reported. Six months later, members of the center, led by Faisal Shah, founded MASS and opened its doors to anyone in Duval County who is uninsured and earns below the poverty line. The work of the clinic's staff and volunteers represents the kinds of positive contributions Muslim Americans make to their communities even in the face of hatred.

Dr. Islam Tafish, volunteer neurologist at MASS

Dr. Islam Tafish, volunteer neurologist at MASS

Asghar and I had resolved to make Unconditional Care but it wasn't until Taliesin's act of bravery, his ultimate offering of unconditional care, that we really began. 

In his aptly titled autobiography, You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train, historian Howard Zinn says, "The power of a bold idea uttered publicly in defiance of dominant opinion cannot be easily measured. Those special people who speak out in such a way as to shake up not only the self-assurance of their enemies, but the complacency of their friends, are precious catalysts for change.” Taliesin is one such catalyst for change. He spoke out against hatred with his body, his life. The volunteers at MASS and all of the Muslim-run free clinics across the U.S. are also catalysts. They speak out with their selfless work to treat their uninsured and impoverished fellow Americans. Unconditional Care will amplify their message to the world, honoring Taliesin's courageous act while helping to transform the story MASS into medicine for an entire nation.

Our goals for Unconditional Care are big. Yes. But it is imperative to stand up for our friends and neighbors when they are threatened and listen when they speak. The times call for big endeavors in service of truth, equity, and justice. As history teaches us, as Taliesin embodied, you can't be neutral on a moving train.

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Our production is partially funded by a gift from Baptist Health but we still need to raise additional funds to make this film. Please consider helping us tell the story of the clinic by making a donation of any amount.

Click here to learn more about MASS and Unconditional Care.