Naja Besi is one of USA TODAY’s Women of the Year, recognizing women who have made a significant impact in their communities and across the country. The program is launched in 2022 year as a continuation women of the century which was dedicated to the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage. Meet this year’s honorees at womenoftheyear.usatoday.com.
Although Naja Bazzi is recognized by many for her role as a humanitarian and interfaith leader, there is much more to her than that.
Born in southeast Michigan, Buzzi began her career after earning a degree in nursing from Madonna University. From there, she spent more than three decades working in intensive care and as a transcultural nurse, drawing on personal experiences as a child to help those in need.
Besi served as CEO of Diversity Specialists and Adjunct Professor at Michigan State University’s Institute for International Health, and co-founded the Young Muslim Association, where she continues to serve as a senior advisor to the organization.
Widely regarded as a leader in Muslim health and ethics, she has drawn on her personal experience to provide diversity and intercultural training for the United States Army, the US Department of Justice, the International Red Cross and others.
Bazzi also founded and serves as the CEO of Zaman International, a needs-based organization that helps households meet their basic needs by breaking the cycle of poverty by providing food, clothing, shelter and more to women, children, the elderly and the terminally ill.
Basie, who has drawn on her life experiences to advocate for justice and help those in need with love and compassion, has been named Michigan’s USA TODAY Woman of the Year honoree.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Actually there were three of them: my grandmother, my mother and my aunt. I think there is always more than one influence in life, and I think of them as three lanes converging on one highway. My grandmother in the sense that she was essentially a single mother raising her children. As immigrants, they came all the way to the United States by boat. She influenced me not only with the love of a matriarch, which I really try to model, but also with her appreciation for freedom. It never leaves me.
I learned perseverance from my mother. My mother suffered a lot as a child with many injuries, but she also gave birth to my brother, who has muscular dystrophy, and raised him for 67 years. Through her, I really got to know the essence of motherhood very deeply. I grew up with a keen sense that the have-nots can still give to the have-nots.
The last one is my aunt, to whom I give a huge amount. She survived the Detroit riots and race wars that raged in the 60s. She was the mom next door when I was growing up, and I always really wanted to be that person. I feel like I’m really the culmination of all three of them.
It really would have to be one of my saints. Her name is Zeinab and she is definitely a saint to me, but maybe not to everyone in the Muslim world. She is the granddaughter of Prophet Muhammad. She lost everything a person could lose. She watched as her children, her brothers, her family members were literally killed in the land we now call Iraq.
Zainab was a person of social justice. She lived through one of the greatest tragedies in human history and had to stand up to the tyrant of her time who killed her family. The way she gave the most eloquent speech and toppled an entire dynasty, the way she did it with eloquence, class, resilience, passion, truth and love, the way she did it lives on in me.
I think about 9/11 because I was in full force when it happened. I was at the height of my nursing career, developing what we now call diversity, equity and inclusion, but I was ahead of the game back then. I taught hospital systems how to integrate culturally competent care and spiritually sensitive care.
When 9/11 happened, I was in my hijab and there were people who were generally open and loving and teachable in the sense that what I had to say really mattered to them and the hospital system was really ready embrace this idea of patient satisfaction. When 9/11 happened, you could see people who would normally hug me in the morning.
I was flying on a plane and had to smile because I wanted people to see my smile and not my hijab. It was a very difficult time when Muslims were considered terrorists. I thought to myself, I’m going to push through this.
It is the ability to resist the flow. If everyone goes one way, I decided to go another. I don’t like standing still.
Career-wise, I think I’m most proud of advancing the nursing profession. I am most proud of the moments when I teach doctors and they actively listen. The culture of this field has always been hierarchical, and I have been able to gain the respect of doctors and health professionals who recognize that there may be an alternative way of thinking about care.
I learned that everything is interdependent and the only thing that is independent is God. It taught me humility in leadership because we all have to work together. I used to be very hard on myself, always thinking I had to do everything. Today I know that this is not true. Today WE must do it.