Local physician fights back against anti-Muslim rhetoric

Wappingers Falls, N.Y. – Seema Rizvi vividly remembers the day Osama Bin Laden was killed near a military complex in Pakistan. While millions of people celebrated around the world, Rizvi, a Pakistani native, immediately thought about her daughter.

Her daughter, Aena, came home from school on the verge of tears after a classmate told her that she didn’t like her because she was a Muslim. Rizvi told Aena to ignore it.

“When [Muslim children] see an attack on TV, the first thing they utter is, ‘I hope it wasn’t a Muslim,’” said Rizvi, a Fishkill resident. “They go through an identity crisis and there are so many Muslim families that are very concerned about their young Muslim children.”

Rizvi, a physician, social worker and Muslim activist, has become increasingly concerned about what she says is growing anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S. She says she feels compelled to dispel stereotypes about Muslims, especially in the wake of last year’s terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino. She also says that the media doesn’t do enough to report attacks against Muslims, like the massacre of 132 schoolchildren by the Taliban in Peshawar, Pakistan, in December 2014.

“When I saw the killings in Peshawar, I wanted to tell people in the Western world that [the terrorists] are also killing Muslims,” Rizvi said. “We should all work together to fight against this terrorism.”

In January, Rizvi organized an interfaith meeting at her mosque, the Mid-Hudson Islamic Association, to counter anti-Muslim bigotry and inform others about what she perceives as a double standard in the media. Over 200 local Christians, Jews, Hindus and Muslims attended the event, including former N.Y. State Senator Terry Gipson.

“It was an amazing day,” said Kathy Hamilton, a member of the Church of St. Mary who attended the interfaith event. “[Rizvi] is a very well-spoken professional and is very compassionate and passionate about her community.”

“She’s a force to be reckoned with,” Hamilton added.

Rizvi was born in Karachi, Pakistan, but has lived in the U.S. for more than 25 years. After obtaining a medical degree from Dow University, one of Pakistan’s premier health science institutions, she traveled to the U.S. on a tourist visa to visit her brothers. During that visit, Rizvi met her husband, Syed, who was working as an electrical engineer for IBM.

She began practicing medicine in New York in 1998, specializing in geriatric care. She then opened up her own medical practice in Fishkill nine years later.

In 2010, Rizvi started a program to treat patients who can’t afford medical insurance. She says people learn about this service by “word of mouth” and that she has treated around 100 patients over the years, free of charge. Rizvi also serves on the Wappingers Central School District Board of Education.

“When my mother-in-law had cancer, Dr. Rizvi came to my home every day to visit her,” said Aisha Qumar, a Fishkill resident. “She came every day for two years.”

Qumar and Rizvi are good friends to this day.

Rizvi’s social work is not confined to New York. In February, she spent three weeks in Pakistan volunteering at medical clinics and hospitals, providing free outpatient care to hundreds of people. Rizvi and her medical colleagues, including two other doctors and a microbiologist, treated over 600 patients in just three days in a small, rural community in Khairpur, Pakistan. Most of them were poor, lacked education and in dire need of medical attention.

“I do a lot of social work because I enjoy that part of my life and that’s what I have a passion for,” she said. “It’s too easy to live just for yourself.”

Rizvi shows videos of her volunteer work in Pakistan, where she spent three weeks treating medical patients for free.
Rizvi shows videos of her volunteer work in Pakistan, where she spent three weeks treating medical patients for free.

While in Pakistan, Rizvi also volunteered at Dow University’s Civic Hospital, Indus Hospital and the Sindh Institute of Urology and Transplantation, which are all not-for-profit medical institutions mainly supported by the Pakistani government and donors. Rizvi serves as a N.Y. State representative for the Indus Hospital.

“There are no boundaries [for Rizvi],” said Jean Tavin, who used to work part-time at Rizvi’s medical practice. “She’s a very passionate woman concerned not just for the Islamic community, but any place where there is a need in the world and where she feels people are neglected.”

In 2005, Rizvi and her father, Syed Sami Ahmad, a distinguished Pakistani attorney and author, helped fundraise for the victims of the Kashmir earthquake that left more than 86,000 people dead. Rizvi also contributed to relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, which hit the northeastern coast of the U.S. in 2012.

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Then-N.Y. Sen. Hillary Clinton responds to an invitation from Dr. Rizvi to attend a fundraiser for the 2005 Kashmir earthquake victims.

Rizvi says that she wouldn’t be the humanitarian she is today without the guidance of her father. As he gained prominence in Pakistan, every government official tried to buy him off, but she says he “never compromised with corruption.”

“My dad is a very vocal person. He is not flattered by anyone and he is a man of principle. I got those good values,” she said.

But unlike her father, Rizvi doesn’t like getting too political because it can detract from making progress. Instead, her focus is on helping others and giving back.

“I was born in a country where I saw a lot of human suffering,” she said. “When I see poverty and the corruption of government, I pray to God that there is something I can do. But I cannot fix the government, so I find my own ways to help humanity.”