‘You Look Scary': Muslim Family Describes Discrimination at Virginia Hospital

A prominent Muslim family went to a hospital after the birth of a newborn baby. They say the staff humiliated them

What to Know

  • A Muslim family says staff at Inova Fair Oaks told them they looked "scary" and threatened to throw them out.
  • Inova said it is reviewing its anti-discrimination policy with staff members.
  • The incident was especially hurtful because the infant's grandparents once volunteered as chaplains for the same hospital system.

A Muslim family went to a hospital in Northern Virginia to celebrate a joyous occasion: the birth of a newborn baby.

But they say hospital staff humiliated them by telling them they looked "scary," and threatened to kick them out.

Visiting hours were nearly over when the Zahr family went to Inova Fair Oaks Hospital in Fairfax, Virginia, in early December. They wanted to visit Ahmed Zahr's newborn baby.

When they got up to the third-floor birthing center, they were confronted by a security guard, Arwa Zahr, the newborn's aunt, said in an exclusive interview with News4. 

"He screams and he says, 'You're not allowed to be here!' And then he said, 'You know, you look scary,'" she recalled. "I was shocked, like, 'Did he say that?'"

The Zahrs believe the guard was objecting to the full black veils Arwa Zahr and her mother wore, showing only their eyes. 

The family was ordered to go back downstairs. When the newborn's father learned what happened, he told the guard he had been disrespectful.

The guard summoned the shift supervisor, whom the family identified as the head nurse, and things got worse, the family said.

"We tried to explain to [the supervisor] our side of the story. He looked at my mother as she was trying to explain what happened, and he told her, 'Close your mouth or I’ll kick you out,'" Ahmed Zahr recalled.

The family said that wasn't all.

"He’s telling them, 'Nobody wants you here. The nurses don't want you. The doctors don't want you here,'" Ahmed Zahr said.

As he continued to defend his family, the supervisor called the police.

"It was surprising to me. First of all, we weren’t threatening in any way. No one had done anything," Ahmed Zahr said.

The family spoke with Fairfax County officers, who they described as calm and helpful, and then left the hospital. Then, they registered formal complaints with Inova.

The incident was especially hurtful because the infant's grandparents, Dr. Nabil Zahr and Karima Zohdi, once volunteered as chaplains at Inova Fairfax Hospital, another hospital in the Inova system. They founded and run The Palm Tree School, a private school in Fairfax that provides Islamic studies as well as the standard curriculum.

Ahmed Zahr said his family had never encountered such abuse.

"Just to be treated like that just because of the way you're dressed," he said. "We're been living here for, you know, 20-plus years. I haven't witnessed discrimination to this extent."

Inova said all patients "have the right to a respectful, safe environment, free from all forms of discrimination." They said they reviewed their anti-discrimination policy at all daily safety meetings.

The hospital group said Inova is reviewing the family's concerns, and that they offered to meet with the Zahrs.

The family said they're not interested in meeting until Inova says what action they've taken related to their specific case, and what any investigation they conducted found.

In the meantime, the Zahr family calls the day they visited the hospital for the birth of a baby "The Day of Mortification."

They didn't get to meet Ahmed Zahr's first child, a baby girl, that day. 

Here's the full statement Inova sent News4:

Inova respects and values our diverse patient community and believes that all patients have the right to a respectful, safe environment, free from all forms of discrimination. We hold our team members and contractors to the highest ethical standards, supported by a strict zero-tolerance policy against discrimination of any kind.

We are reviewing the family’s concerns and we continue to look for opportunities to better manage these situations in the future.

Inova’s senior leadership values our longstanding relationship with the family and has extended an invitation to meet in person.

All employees are aware of our anti-discrimination policy and are required to complete ethics and compliance training annually. Following this incident, as part of staff awareness, the policy was reviewed at all of our daily safety meetings.

We understand how important visitors are to our patients and their care. However, certain units in the hospital require family visitation hours to assure that all patients have a quiet, healing environment.

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