Jasmine Jiwani kneels at her husband’s gravestone at a cemetery in Lawrenceville, Georgia. She never thought—coming to America from East Africa a decade ago—that one day she would have to mourn alone.
Jiwani is part of Atlanta’s large Ismaili Muslim community, which believes in the power of communal prayer to worship and heal. Covid restrictions prevented the community from gathering for the funeral of her husband, who died of Covid.
In the latest episode of A Better Life?, Producer Zulekha Nathoo reports on how the pandemic has created unique challenges for Jiwani and other Ismaili Muslims.
At the age of 34, Jasmine Jiwani never expected to be a widow.
“It’s been a year but still, it’s hard for me,” says the mother-of-two, laying single stem roses in a neat line on the grave of her husband in Lawrenceville, Georgia.
Despite taking precautions such as wearing a mask and staying close to home, Jiwani’s husband, Asif Parbatani, contracted Covid-19 in the summer of 2020. At that time, infections were rising in many parts of the U.S. and no one knew when a vaccine might arrive. Parbatani died after battling the virus for five weeks in the hospital. During that time Jiwani was only allowed to see him once — on his deathbed.
“They allowed us only one day and one time that you can come and visit him,” says Jiwani.
Losing a loved one to Covid is painful enough, but the restricted goodbyes, rapid funerals and lack of collective comfort from relatives left many families unable to properly grieve.
Jiwani turned to her faith group for support, the Ismaili Muslim community in Atlanta.
Thousands of Ismaili Muslims live in the area and have established places of worship not just in Georgia but across the U.S. Many began immigrating to North America from Asia and Africa in the 1970s, often to escape political conflicts, persecution and poverty. Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims worldwide are guided by an Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan.
As restrictions tightened across the country to prevent further spread of the disease, the community found itself trying to balance both the physical and mental health needs of its followers.
“Our faith is one that allows for not only spiritual contemplation, but the opportunity to come together and to communicate, to support one another,” said Behnoosh Momin, a volunteer member of the Ismaili Council’s leadership team covering the southeastern United States. “To not have that was definitely a challenge.”
“In the Ismaili community and actually in the Islamic faith, we are encouraged to go to funerals. Even if you don’t know the person, the fact that there is a funeral you are encouraged to go because there is sawaab in it,” says Dr. Gulshan Harjee, an Atlanta-based physician and member of the Ismaili faith.
In Islam, sawaab means spiritual reward for having done a good deed.
Among Ismaili Muslims, the vulnerability of members, particularly seniors and lower-income families, became a big concern. The community organized blood drives, sewed masks for health care workers, and set up vaccination clinics. Perhaps most importantly, it was quiet acts of kindness that helped people face the days after tragedy.
“One thing I did do is I got on FaceTime with them. And I told them I’m speaking to you not as your doctor, but I’m speaking to you as a friend,” Dr. Harjee said. Having faced unimaginable grief herself when she lost her own husband in a 1999 mass shooting, Dr. Harjee became a go-to member of the Ismaili community for an empathetic ear.
Jiwani knows she’s not alone because of support she has received from her community and people like Dr. Harjee. But in those quiet moments, like at the cemetery, Jiwani says she worries constantly about her children’s future and how she’ll face it as a single parent.
“We came here (to the U.S.) for fulfilling our dreams, our future life,” she says. “But when these things happen, then we regret that why did we came(sic) here.”
Feet in 2 Worlds is supported by The Ford Foundation, the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation, an anonymous donor and readers like you.