Interview with Najah Bazzy – CEO of Zaman International
CNN Hero Najah Bazzy and staff and volunteers at Zaman International in Dearborn, Michigan courtesy CNN
While officially becoming a nonprofit in 2004, Zaman International in Dearborn, Michigan, has been helping women and children since 1996. The idea of helping families in need was a calling to founder and CEO Najah Bazzy, who has led the organization from its small beginnings to becoming one of the largest and most successful nonprofits in metro Detroit. In 1996, Bazzy, a Transcultural Clinical Nurse Specialist, visited a family whose infant was in the neonatal intensive care unit where Bazzy was working. Bazzy wanted to check on the family, which immigrated recently, and discovered their poor living conditions. When the infant died and the family could not afford to bury him, Bazzy began “Plots for Tots,” Zaman International’s signature program, which provides dignified burial support for families who have lost an infant. Since its founding, Zaman International has expanded to several programs to help thousands of families every year. According to its most recent annual report, Zaman International has served over 3 million people globally since 2010.
KD: Where did the name for Zaman International come from?
NB: It was honestly the word just inspired by a voice that I kind of heard. Initially, back in 2004, when I created the organization, I wanted to name it Salam International because I was doing all this national interfaith work post 9/11, but after I completed all the paperwork and called it Salam International, I was about ready to sign the documents and only I just kind of heard this inspiration that said Zaman, not Salam, so as a nurse, you learn to listen to your inside voice. We call it in nursing the sixth sense, and I realized that perhaps I had misnamed it, so I re-did all the paperwork and called it Zaman. [The lawyer] asked me what the name means. I said, you know it is a very lofty word in the Arabic language and it means time, so maybe this should be about how we spend our time on earth.
KD: To date, what has Zaman International been able to accomplish?
NB: Ninety percent of every dollar donated directly supported our programs, received nearly 2,000 donations world-wide, served over 317,000 globally, have nearly 600 active partners, over 220,000 pounds of food distributed, over $300k in clothing household goods, and financial provided; over 11k hours of employment provided to BOOST graduates.
KD: In 2019, you were named a “Top Ten CNN Hero” for your work with Zaman International. How did the national exposure help the work that you and Zaman International do?
NB: It was massive, to be honest with you, because it wasn’t just national, it was global. So, it gave credibility to the organization, because in order to become a CNN Hero, the organization is heavily vetted, which gives funders and donors trust that the organization is more than legit; like I’m completely legit or it couldn’t become a CNN Hero. It gave exposure on a global stage which is really phenomenal, and you know, up until today, we receive letters. People feel inspired, people who want us to explain to them how it happened. There was a tour that we were doing as a result of the CNN Hero. Little children like in fifth, eighth, tenth, twelve, college were writing essays about Zaman, looking at who heroes were; who they were most inspired by, and Zaman kept coming up. We got letters from all around the world and people felt deeply moved by the work that we do so it opens up a lot of doors for funding, for recognition, for a whole lot of awards that followed, but also in addition to that, the CNN Hero opens the door for leadership training. All of the ten heroes went together to California and we were invited to the Annenberg Leadership Training and we went through intense training for a week, to help us understand how to deal with the fame that comes along with becoming a CNN Hero, and so you know it was just really wonderful, but I think it helped Zaman get to where it was hoping to get to, and that was that national spotlight, that global spotlight, the legitimacy of the organization, the ethics, the virtues, the way that Zaman does its work and the profound impact it’s having; it really has been significant. It’s definitely a game changer.
KD: How did the COVID-19 pandemic impact the work of Zaman International?
NB: COVID-19 definitely impacted the work we did. What we say here at Zaman is if everything was to go away, we would continue to feed people. So it was actually post CNN, which was December 8, 2019 and I was doing a tour across the country, visiting certain places for the CNN Hero award and this news about this virus started to surface, so I was in Seattle actually at the time, maybe it was probably in January, at the end of January or maybe the beginning of February, and you know that’s kind of where it started here in United States. I return to Zaman, and I had a meeting with our team, and I said there’s news about a virus that’s been surfacing, and if it’s a respiratory virus, which it sounds like, we have to get prepared right away because that means it could be a pandemic. I knew that because I’m a nurse so I said it and we have to understand that if the country ends up having this big issue, what we are willing to do, what we can do. If worse came to worst and we needed to shut down, what would our options be, and we all decided that we would feed people, so what happened was the inside operations of Zaman shut down. People were working remotely, and we went back to our original story of Zaman, which was boxing food and giving people food, so we created outside of Zaman food distribution, and we had cars lined up miles and miles long, and so that’s what we did in terms of sustaining people with food.
The next thing we did was we took all of our classes online, which was a difficult thing to do because most of our people did not even know how to operate a laptop, but we got laptops. We gave them to our clients and we went virtual and continued. We didn’t miss a beat. We continued to teach all of our classes online, to keep up with this, not knowing how long the virus and the pandemic would last.
The next thing we did was we helped to be part of the State’s vaccination plan. I sat on the board for the Governor of Michigan to help create the marketing pieces and get people vaccinated, and then what we did was we started reaching out to funders, and funders were reaching out to us. We were post- CNN Hero we had a lot of coverage and funders were calling to say; “what can we do to help you?” and since we were closed on the inside of the building of the Hope for Humanity Center, we started to think about what did our strategic plan look like, and if there’s funding available and we realized that those who were most hit by the pandemic were the most marginalized people. So we thought about how we can use Zaman not only to be a basic needs institution, but how we can build capacity for workforce development. As a result of that, we got enough funding to build out our second commercial kitchen, which is our workforce development kitchen, and next to that, we were able to build a food pantry, like a grocery store, and next to that we were able to build out an entire 3000 square feet of what we call an industrial manufacturing sew and cut center. And then, most recently with the funding, we were able to create a beautiful state of the art adult literacy center, and we were able to get funding for a health care clinic. So, for Zaman, the pivot was huge because we were actually able to realize our strategic plan.
KD: Zaman International has made an urgent call for donations and help to give relief to survivors of the Turkey & Syria earthquake. What kind of help is needed? What has Zaman International been able to do so far?
NB: My international work began before I had Zaman. It began with Bosnia, and when the Bosnian War was going on. I couldn’t sleep; it really bothered me a lot, so I began doing international work then, and have continued to have a role and Zaman now has a role as a result of my role, and so we are in 20 countries. We try to focus in the most devastated areas so if there’s an earthquake or if it was the flooding in Pakistan or the drought in Somalia, Zaman was raising funds, and then partnering with our international partnership, which is International Medical Corps. It’s a worldwide global NGO, and we do everything with them in terms of helping to support them while they’re on the ground, so for Turkey and Syria, for example, trauma crisis, healing, physical help in terms of injuries, and all of that: food, clothing, [helping people who are] displaced.
KD: How is Zaman International serving women and children in need that are outside the USA?
NB: The way that we help serve women and children in need outside of the USA is really what we do here at work. It is the humanitarian work so whether that is supporting orphans, technology, art, hospital, or “Sips for Hope,” water well projects that we have, education for girls—it’s pretty much what we do here, but we do it by supporting NGOs in other countries that do the work that’s aligned with our mission and vision. Of course, it is not just women and children because if there’s a natural disaster like the earthquake, that includes everybody. But for example, most recently, in 2022, I visited an all-girls orphanage school, a college prep school, where kids were eighth grade to twelfth grade, and we started a scholarship fund for arts, and we supplied them with computers and technology and we had the physical visit there. Soon, at the end of April, I’m going to visit a hospital that we are involved with, and that serves women and children. I am taking a group of nurses to help educate the nurses, the women who are nurses there, and give them a boost in terms of their education and the way nursing is practiced in that particular country.
KD: What is the BOOST program and what kind of training does the program offer?
NB: BOOST is a training program that began in 2009. BOOST stands for Building Outgoing Opportunity through Skills Training. It started off with our clients when I sat with them and asked them what they wanted to do, and they said that they wanted to learn to sew. I thought that was a good idea because it was something they could do from home. Most of our women are abandoned, abused, divorced, or refugees, and so the need for them to stay home was understandable since they may have had little children, and they live in poverty, and a sewing machine is mobile; it is something you can take with you, so it is like carrying money in your pocket or your vocation in your pocket, so we were looking for vocational skills that were portable. Sewing is a portable skill and we hoped to be adding to these portable skills in the future and assistant program and childhood development program as well as a tech program. Currently, we have culinary arts. We have basic and intermediate sewing with the entrepreneurship program, and we have our industrial sewing as part of the vocation which leads to employment here on site. Our culinary arts students also graduate here and can be employed on site. We are building partnerships with other employers and the more who graduate, the more can go on to work, and break the cycle of poverty. BOOST also has a literacy program and has been voted the number one program, exceeding the States average by over 38 percent.
KD: What future plans does Zaman International have?
NB: Its future plan is to continue removing the barriers that are part of systemic poverty, so looking at housing, transportation, and childcare as three barriers that are still out there that we would love to be able to solve and continue doing what we’re doing and finish our model, and then go out in the world and teach this model to be able to advocate for policy change at a national level. These are really high goals but things that we really look forward to and just continue to do the work we do and help as many women as we can. Internationally, we will continue to do what we do which is to raise funds to support partner NGOs which are already on the ground and those are mostly with national disaster relief, orphanages, and water projects.
KD: How can people volunteer at Zaman International? What opportunities are there for college students who want to help?
NB: They can get in touch with our volunteer coordinator. Her name is Jessica Daily. They can go to our website and click on “volunteer” and they can send an email saying that they want to volunteer. We have volunteer orientation once a month. There are all kinds of opportunities for college students who want to help. Everything that is here is available as a volunteer opportunity, so those opportunities are available. The list is quite endless.
For more information on Zaman International, including donating to help survivors of the earthquake in Turkey and Syria, go to: zamaninternational.org.