From morning to night, the 26-year-old fields calls from friends and strangers alike, most of whom are seeking slots at one of the COVID-19 vaccine clinics her family runs at the Minhaj ul Quran Al-Noor Islamic Center in Ellington. © Mark Mirko/Mark Mirko Sisters Tehmina and Sumrina Naheed speak with a patient after he was vaccinated at a clinic organized by the sisters and their parents in the Minhaj ul Quran Al-Noor Islamic Center in Ellington.
“I have people calling me every day,” Naheed said. “It starts at 8 a.m. and it goes all the way to 8 or 9 p.m.”
Naheed and her 23-year-old sister Sumrina, with help from their parents and two younger siblings, have now hosted seven vaccination clinics at the mosque — all aimed at Muslim residents but open to any patient, regardless of religion or ethnicity. Over six weeks of clinics, they have vaccinated hundreds and become their community’s go-to vaccine sources, talking locals through the process in any of four languages. © Mark Mirko/Mark Mirko Hafiza Naheed, left, and Ghulam Sarwar talk with their daughters Alina, Sumrina and Tehmina, at a vaccine clinic in the Minhaj ul Quran Al-Noor Islamic Center in Ellington.
At a time when officials across the state and country urge local community figures to endorse and encourage vaccination, Tehmina and Sumrina Naheed have done so with enthusiasm, using their credibility as part of a prominent local family to spread information and access.
“A lot of individuals are from back home. They’re not very well-educated [on the vaccine]. They don’t get the gist of everything, so there has been a lot of explaining,” Sumrina said Thursday, as patients filed in and out of the mosque for vaccination. “They weren’t really trusting us unless we were working with them one-on-one and helping them out.”
During the family’s seventh and most recent clinic Thursday morning, Tehmina, Sumrina and 14-year-old Alina greeted patients as they arrived for their second Moderna shots, guided them through the vaccination process, and answered questions in English, Punjabi and Urdu.
“These are a lot of the people we’ve been seeing often [at the mosque], but we’re helping them in a different way,” Sumrina said. “You see people coming that haven’t seen their grandkids for a whole year, not getting that touch and not getting that happiness. So many people have been down, and to finally see them able to go out and meet their loved ones, it’s amazing.”
As in any community, the sisters say, some people are giddy to finally get their shot, while others ask questions and express fear based on scary headlines they saw on social media.
That’s where trust comes in. Locals could seek a vaccine at any number of sites across the region. They choose the mosque because they’re comfortable with the setting and the people and because they know someone will speak their language. © Mark Mirko/Mark Mirko Manchester resident Salmabibi Kavla speaks with Sumrina Naheed, 23, while waiting for her second vaccine dose at a clinic organized by Naheed, her sisters Tehmina and Alina and their parents in the Minhaj ul Quran Al-Noor Islamic Center in Ellington.
“That’s really, really important,” Tehmina Naheed said. “They trust me that I won’t be giving out wrong information, that I will be giving them 100% truth. I won’t be hiding anything.”
The idea for a vaccine clinic at the mosque began in January when town officials from nearby Vernon reached out to Ghulam Sarwar, the founder of the mosque and Tehmina and Sumrina’s father, with a proposal: The town would provide vaccine doses and the staff to administer them, if Sarwar would provide the patients.
Sarwar agreed enthusiastically, then asked his daughters if they would run the clinic. Tehmina had studied medicine in Bangladesh and was now preparing for the United States Medical Licensing Exam, which will certify her as a doctor in the U.S. Plus, she spoke four languages (English, Punjabi, Urdu and Bengali), allowing her to communicate with a wide array of potential patients. Sumrina was a senior at UConn on a pre-med track, planning to apply to medical school next year.
The sisters didn’t hesitate.
“I was really excited,” Tehmina recalled. “It makes me happy that I can help our community out and especially those that don’t understand English and that can’t get onto the computer.”
The family spread the word across the Muslim community through Facebook and Whatsapp, distributing Tehmina’s personal cell number. The calls arrived by the dozens, and before long the mosque was hosting clinics for 50 or even 100 patients, from not only nearby towns but also far-flung parts of the state.
“We have hundreds of people go through this place, and everybody is happy,” Sarwar said. “God gave us this chance, and we’re all doing it for the sake of Allah.”
Toward the end of the clinic Thursday, the sisters’ mother, Hafiza Naheed, showed up for her own second dose. Watching her daughters hustle around the mosque, she noted with admiration that they are fasting for Ramadan and had been awake since 4:30 a.m.
“I’m so proud,” Naheed said. “I told them, don’t do that during Ramadan, and they said, ‘Mom it’s scheduled.’ They are determined. They are fulfilling, promising people, and my whole family is like that.”
Typically during Ramadan, observant Muslims do not allow food or liquid to enter their bodies from sunrise to sunset. But while some Muslims have interpreted that restriction to include vaccines, Tehmina Naheed said the imam at their mosque, like many others nationwide, had made an allowance.
Naheed said some in her community are motivated by the idea of a large, in-person celebration of Eid, the holiday marking the end of Ramadan, which lasts 30 days.
“They’re like, ‘If we get vaccinated, then we can get together and celebrate Eid with our family,” she said.
The family says there are more clinics to come, as Tehmina’s phone continues to ring with vaccine-seekers. Tehmina and Sumrina Naheed say they are learning skills that will help them during future careers in medicine, and Sumrina jokes that the vaccine clinic will make for an impressive story for medical school admissions officials.
It may also, she says, be a lifelong memory.
“This is something we’re going to talk on for years and decades later,” she said. “We’re going to look back and say, ‘I was a part of this.’”