A Counselor’s Convictions Forge a Culture of Acceptance

Leila Warraich Portrait
By James Sheehan

Leila Warraich was worried. It was late January and President Trump had just announced Executive Order 13769, commonly known as the travel ban, which sought to bar U.S. entry to people from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen—countries with predominantly Muslim populations.

Born in College Station, Texas, Warraich had lived there for eight years, then five years in Pakistan and six years in Qatar as her father took on different roles with Texas A&M University. Seeing the world and exposing herself to different lands and cultures was almost as much a part of her identity as her Muslim faith.

Now in her first year of the master’s program in clinical mental health counseling, she felt vulnerable. Like millions of other Muslims across the country, she feared future expansion of the ban, possible separation from family members overseas. Would wearing her traditional veil, or hijab, make her a target for detainment during travel or, worse, for acts of bias or hate?

The potential impact of the ban extended even into her chosen profession.

“A lot of people I know are affected by policies like these,” she said. “Separating families, contributing to a climate of fear. For many people, every single day is ‘What will happen to me?’ That constant stress is a big problem.”

One of the things worrying Warraich is that people in need of mental health treatment will be more afraid to seek it out. “And there is such a need in these populations,” she said, “because there’s such a stigma around mental health.”

Mental health and social stigma

According to the most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 56.5 percent of adults with a mental illness—including such conditions as anxiety, depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder—received no treatment. Although access to treatment is slowly improving as more people have gained health insurance coverage, the problem is especially severe in communities in which mental health issues carry some social stigma.

“I think the Muslim community does a wonderful job coming together to help support one another in the face of external issues, but, in general, if people have distinct mental health issues, many people think you should just pray, and you’ll be fine,” said Warraich. “My religion is very important to me, so I know that praying is very powerful, but there’s nothing wrong with seeing a counselor, too.”

Even though counselors are trained to be culturally competent, there are often tremendous barriers to seeking help. “If I’m a woman of color, wearing a scarf, I am much more likely to have a level of comfort with someone who looks like me. A lot of it simply comes down to having more Muslim people in this field. To normalize therapy. To remove some of the stigma attached to mental health issues—and to help people understand how common they are.”

The opportunity

Days after the announcement of the travel ban, Warraich spotted an interesting item in her Facebook feed: The National Muslim Women’s Summit. Co-sponsored by the Women’s Initiative for Self-Empowerment (WISE) and Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, the summit, organized by WISE director Rana Abdelhamid, sought to create a sustained fellowship network of Muslim women, empowering them to be agents of change around the world.

It was the right message at the right time. Warraich applied. Two weeks later, she received word that she was one of 50 delegates, out of almost 400 applicants nationwide, selected to attend. She had two weeks to confirm.

“So it was then that I realized, ‘How am I going to do this?’” she recalled. Acceptance to the inaugural conference was an honor, but travel and accommodations for three days in Boston wouldn’t be cheap. She casually asked her practicum professor, Christy Harnett, if there were funds available to support her participation.

Harnett had good reason to take her seriously. In one of their first classes, she had been struck by Warraich’s remarkable patience and candor in sharing details of her upbringing, culture and faith. “Leila told us, ‘Don’t be afraid to ask me any question; I will not be offended.’ It was a perfect example of servant leadership, of openness facilitating of diversity.”

In a subsequent class, Warraich brought in a stack of different colored fabric and instructed the women in the class how to don and wear the hijab. “Never have I seen grad students squeal with so much delight,” Harnett laughs. “The act of putting on the scarf allowed us to see ourselves in a new light.” (The activity was such a rousing success that Harnett wants Warraich to conduct a schoolwide Hijab Day.)

Harnett quickly recognized the potential impact the summit could have on her student. “You need to do this,” she told her. “We’re going to find a way to get you there.”

Enter Natalie Kauffman. A School of Education counseling alumna, past president of the Maryland Career Development Association and Maryland Counseling Association, and lifetime member of the Johns Hopkins Alumni Association, Kauffman knows the value of the right professional opportunity.

When she heard about Warraich’s chance to attend the summit, she immediately offered her support through the Counseling Student Conference Scholarship Fund. For Kauffman, supporting students in this way is simply practicing good mentorship.

“When I was a graduate student, I was fortunate to have a wonderful mentor in Lee Richmond,” she said. “Dr. Richmond fostered in us the responsibility for developing ourselves professionally—not merely to benefit our own careers, but, more important, so that we might serve others more effectively. When I meet today’s School of Education counseling students, I am continually impressed, even awed. They are thinking ‘How can I provide the best possible service to my diverse clientele, how can I connect, meet their unique needs and empower them?’ Our counseling students are getting the right message, and I’m glad to play a small part in helping them apply it.”

The summit

Held at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government for three days in March and April, the National Muslim Women’s Summit offered workshops and speeches from activists geared toward building skills for successful activism, including workshops on fundraising and attracting an audience. First and foremost, for Warraich, it was a safe space to discuss the struggles that Muslim women face—and those of all women.

“There were people from all ages and all over the U.S., any and every field,” she said. “I met lawyers, activists, scholars, people in STEM. One woman was running for her local city council. I looked at everyone and thought, ‘These people are going to change the world.’”

Crucial to the summit’s mission—and to every attendee—is the impetus to use the ideas, connections and energy fostered there and to continue to develop them through a fellowship project. “The idea is to take whatever we’re passionate about and try to make change in our community. Every month we check in with the group to let them know our progress.”

Some delegates are developing a collaboration with the American Civil Liberties Union to help raise awareness about civil liberties. Some have begun compiling art, poetry and stories by or about Muslim women. Others, like Leila, have become mentors.

Warraich plans to serve minority, marginalized and low-income populations as a licensed clinical professional counselor. As part of her current practicum in counseling, she has begun leading a mentorship program at Advanced Behavioral Health in Towson, Md., working with peer groups of high school students many of whom are the first college-bound students in their families.

“So many times graduate students believe they can’t be helpful until they’ve arrived at some distant point of experience or attainment,” said Kauffman. “But what Leila learned at that conference alone—the interconnections, the energy, the range of perspectives—will allow her to be enormously helpful even before she has earned her Hopkins degree.”

Of course, Warraich has already been enormously helpful to her Hopkins colleagues and peers.  When Harnett and Norma Day-Vines, professor of counseling and human services, were considering who to nominate as the student speaker for the School of Education’s tenth anniversary celebration, Warraich was an obvious candidate. She addressed alumni, faculty, fellow students and other special guests at the gala event, alongside such honored guests as Nancy Grasmick, former Maryland state superintendent of education, and Jason Botel, acting assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education at the U.S. Department of Education.

For Warraich, counseling is not just her chosen profession; it’s her calling. “You have a responsibility, with the opportunities you were given, to do things for others,” she said. “When the day comes and God asks me what I did with my life, I want to say that I took my education and used it to serve people. I think this is the best way I can do it.”

Two women in conversation

Leila Warraich, right, at the 2017 National Muslim Women’s Summit. Photo courtesy WISE

Leila Warraich giving a speech

Leila speaking at the tenth anniversary celebration in September.