In Conversation with Dr. Suzy Ismail
By Amani Salahudeen
When Dr. Suzy Ismail was 11 years old, she was disappointed that she couldn’t relate to any character in her favorite series, “The Babysitters Club.”
“None of them looked like me or my friends, and none of their families resembled mine,” Ismail said in an interview with Islamic Horizons. “As much as I searched for relatable characters in the 1980s, I couldn’t find any books with Muslim characters in middle grade novels at that time. So I started thinking about writing such a novel series with characters who looked more like me. But I never got around to writing until many years later when ‘The BFF Sisters’ book was born.”
She stressed the importance of wanting her children and other Muslim youth to feel represented by the books they read. Since “The BFF Sisters,” Laila Sabreen, Hanna Alkaf, S.K. Ali, Uzma Jalaluddin and other Muslim authors have written more relatable characters and themes. Ismail believes that the community must continue to support these authors so that Muslim youth can see more such books in the future.
While Ismail began her writing journey as a fiction author, she has now transitioned into non-fiction. “When Muslim Marriage Fails” is about the misunderstandings and more serious issues that frequently result in divorce. The stories and commentary in the book also give unmarried readers who want to get married a better understanding of the hazards that can rapidly snowball in the ruin of an otherwise salvageable situation. The book dives deep into the five specific divorce narratives from each spouse’s point of view.
She’s also working on a parenting book and “Mending Broken Hearts,” which is centered around recovering from loss and grief. Additionally, she mentioned having a few unfinished novels waiting to be revisited when time permits. Ismail believes that by filling voids in literature with their own stories and experiences, Muslim authors can inspire others to find their own unique voices.
“If you love to write, then do it! Don’t be crippled by self-doubt or imposter syndrome. If you see a need or a void, whether it’s on a specific topic or in a character, fill that void with your author’s voice. Your voice, your thoughts and your ideas are all needed, and you never know who will see themselves in your stories — fiction or nonfiction. In doing so, your readers may connect and find their own unique voice through your writing as well,” Ismail said.
She also has an academic book, “Counseling the Collective,” in the works. This book is based on her dissertation research and the work conducted at Cornerstone, which she founded.
Cornerstone, a nonprofit organization focusing on youth, family and relationship rebuilding, has partnered with a U.S. refugee resettlement group to provide spiritual psycho-socio emotional wellness programming to all incoming refugees.
Cornerstone consists of five departments: Marriage & Family: Premarital education and intervention, marriage facilitation, divorce discernment, blended and joint family dynamics, and parenting • Youth: Self-esteem, confidence, identity, spirituality, and sexuality • Grief/Loss & Anger Management: Perinatal programs • Addiction Integration Interventions & Life Changes: Geriatric care and transitions, such as college and career planning and • Refugee Integration: Offered in several languages to meet refugee needs.
In each of these areas, Cornerstone offers workshops, seminars, programs, support groups, education and intervention sessions. Despite being stigmatized by Muslims, therapy can help individuals understand their struggles and spirituality, strengthen self-esteem, and guide them through life’s rough patches.
“The spiritual component of intervention cannot be left out of therapeutic intervention, particularly with clients from cultures in which faith, family, and community are integral parts of emotional resilience,” Ismail contended.
Speak from the heart
Drawing on her experience as a public speaking teacher, she advises students to speak from the heart and to prioritize authenticity in communication. Passion and interest shine through when speaking on familiar or meaningful topics and create a connection with the audience.
“Authenticity is so critical in communication. And when we speak about topics that are familiar to us or mean a lot to us, our passion and interest shines through, and that excitement is felt by the audience,” she remarked.
Her work focuses on building healthy families and communities, making topics such as relationships, emotional resilience, overcoming hardships, marriage, parenting, youth, identity and the pursuit of God’s pleasure her favorites.
“I’m passionate about building healthy families and communities. So, any topics that revolve around relationships, emotional resilience, overcoming hardships, marriage, parenting, and youth, would fall into my favorite topic category” she said.
Discuss mental health
Ismail urges parents to openly discuss mental health with their children. She emphasizes the importance of not stigmatizing such struggles and of treating them with the same significance as physical ailments.
“Parents, please don’t make mental health taboo!” Ismail implored. “Depression, anxiety and so many other mental health struggles are just as important to address as physical illnesses. Be open and empathetic, not dismissive, in understanding your child’s experiences and in recognizing the need for and importance of having these conversations and destigmatizing the topic of mental healthcare. And then seek help! Know the resources available and schedule that appointment for you and your child today.”
She reflects on the journey of parenthood, recognizing how quickly children grow up and emphasizing the need for parents to guide, teach and encourage while realizing that they don’t own their children. Her hope is that by instilling a foundation of seeking God’s pleasure in their children’s lives, they will leave their own positive mark on the world.
Establishing a work-life balance
Maintaining a work-life balance is crucial for any individual, including busy individuals like Ismail.
“Keeping trust in God and seeking His pleasure first and foremost in your mind as the foundation of everything you do makes a huge difference,” she remarked. “I also have an incredibly supportive husband and awesome kids, alhamdulillah, who’ve always managed to pick up the pieces when I’m feeling pulled in a million directions. We often try to be superheroes and do everything on our own, but surrounding ourselves with those who love and support us every step of the way is like having your own cheering squad that encourages you, especially at the lowest moments when you feel somewhat overwhelmed,” she added.
Dr. Suzy Ismail (MA in communication, Master of Philosophy in human services and a Ph.D. in human services) is a visiting professor at DeVry and Rutgers universities. An expert in refugee emotional resilience, she has received awards like the Ambassador for Peace and the Visionary Muslim.
Amani Salahudeen, currently pursuing a postgraduate degree in education at Western Governors University, has a bachelor’s in journalism and professional writing from The College of New Jersey.