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Abused in Foster Care, Irum Rashid-Jones is on a Mission to Change the System

Growing up, Irum Rashid-Jones slept in stairwells, surviving on condiments, fast food chicken scraps, and cigarettes, which she used to suppress the never-ending hunger that haunted footsteps when she was homeless.
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Courtesy of Irum Rashid-Jones

Growing up, Irum Rashid-Jones slept in stairwells, surviving on condiments, fast food chicken scraps, and cigarettes, which she used to suppress the never-ending hunger that haunted footsteps when she was homeless. Pakistani by birth, of South Asian descent, she was from two different worlds -- Jeddah in the East and New York City in the West -- and doing her best to avoid abuse and child exploitation in the New York City foster care system. 

Family tragedy landed her in the system yet her resilience to change her situation caused her to excel in school, despite the fact that she was sleeping in her only pair of shoes and ready to run when danger would approach. "For a young teen girl to runaway from a group home or foster home is indicative that the environment wasn't meeting the basic needs of security, food & shelter. [Being homeless] is often the only choice for teens when the foster system fails to protect them due to basic needs not being met."

In constant survival mode, Irum survived multiple near death experiences in part due to her embracing Ikigai (pronounced Ick-ee-guy), a self-realization concept from Okinawa. 

“And those were all areas and spaces that I continued to run away from because I always kind of felt like when that danger arrived, somehow you have a sixth sense after a while,” Irum told Local Profile in late September as part of the Local Leaders series on Facebook Live. “You hear a lot of your trauma victims, PTSD victims, talk about this when they go, ‘I know when danger is coming. I can sense it.’ I can sense it from a mile away, which meant I could feel it, I fear it and I’m just going to run.” 

Today, she has come a long way from the horrors she experienced when she was younger. She runs a multi-million dollar business in the home services, construction, and technology industries and serves on multiple advisory panels, nonprofit boards and leadership councils advocating for programs to support families. She has also won several awards, including the Junior League Woman of the Year Award and two Presidential Gold Awards for Volunteer Service by President Trump. 

On October 23, she will be taking part in Local Profile’s 19th annual Women in Business Summit. 

“I promised myself that if I was ever to come out of this situation, I would use all my time and resources to help people understand the misconception about foster children,” Irum says. “It's not that they get in trouble. It's sometimes they are a product of their environment or neglect or abuse and not every foster home or foster care situation is the same situation. 

“And that's why we have to be so careful to have oversight committees and make sure that our children are actually safe because some of the people that were in charge of taking care of me were the same exact people who were trying to exploit me.”

Homelessness, as Irum explains it, is not having permanent housing, and foster care offers short term to permanent housing and/or temporary housing. In 2019, 558 people were homeless in Collin County, 35 percent of them were children, the Collin County Homeless Coalition pointed out in the "2019 Point in Time Homeless Census Report."

The number one reason for being homeless in Collin County, according to the report: the lack of affordable housing.

Besides serving on panels and advisory boards, Irum is also introducing people to Ikigai to help them with recognizing their self worth, discovering their reason for being here, and following their bliss. As Hector Garcia writes in Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life, “Just as humans have lusted after objects and money since the dawn of time, other humans have felt dissatisfaction with the relentless pursuit of money and fame and have instead focused on something bigger than their own material wealth. This has over the years been described using many different words and practices, but always hearkening back to the central core of meaningfulness in life.” 

Irum has been embracing the Okinawan concept for 25 years, though for most of that time she didn’t know that it was called Ikigai. She uses it along with her Christian faith to conquer not only her personal trials but also her professional ones. “I spent much of my childhood in survival mode by feeling like I was locked in a cage with clipped wings,” she says. “The only thing that helped me overcome the current moment was to dream of being free from my circumstances. That was my escape from my reality. So as I acquired new skills, I would practice these skills in every aspect of my life.

“About a decade ago, I met an amazing mindfulness guru that I shared my background with and he labeled my method as Iki-gai which has helped me to adopt even more mindfulness practices.”

Here are a few takeaways from Irum’s interview with the Local Leaders series: 

The Problems that People Don’t Share

“And so what my classmates, what my teachers and my friends didn't know was, I was in foster care. And I was probably one of the most flaky friends because I would never show up to homecoming. I wouldn't show up to the dances. I was so busy working two or three jobs just to survive because I didn't want anyone to feed me for favors. And for those that don't understand what that means is sometimes in these difficult situations, especially in foster care, you're given food. And sometimes your basic needs are taken away from you to weaken you so much that you become a victim of some of these things that I escaped. And so I basically would go, ‘Hey, if I can work at a fast food restaurant, I can be fed. Now, if I can be fed, then I can hang on to like the scrap of a chicken bone, literally a chicken bone for three or four days, which means by Friday, I won't have any school lunch to eat, okay, but at least I'll have food. So if someone decides not to feed me, at least I have a chicken bone that I continue on to for several days.”

Thinking You Have a Bad Day Because of a Coffee Foul

“You're not having to save your life, even if it means that you are laid off, honestly, even if it means there's a huge drift in your work or your shift doesn't mean that you're going to die, doesn't mean someone's going to rejoice because they inflicted hate on you. And so, there are certain words and certain things that we do as adults where we're just comfortable. And sometimes when we're taken out of our comfort zone, it becomes a horrible day for us; it throws us off track. But for someone that's lived through things that really like, you know, have shaped them. We can come forward and go, ‘I'm having a great day. I'm having a productive day. I have 24 hours in a day so how am I going to make this the most productive as possible, because I know the value of not only my life but also the value of all lives around me? It really helped me open up those perspectives not only in myself but others to say, ‘I’m not really having a bad day.’ It's also helped me to raise my emotional intelligence with groups that I've worked with.”

On Carrying the Torch

“At the end of the day, this is a very real situation (for people). It's something where I'd look back and go, ‘Thank God I made it through. ... And so eventually I bootstrap my way to college, landed into different careers in technology as well as in construction. I just kept moving forward with it. But I always kept that promise. I carry that torch, that promise, and at the end of the day, that kind of pushed me into not giving up: ‘If I get ahead of this, if I come out of this, then I have to go back and make sure that we prevent this from happening (to other people).”

Local Leaders by Local Profile is an ongoing video series featuring incredible local leaders sharing their best leadership insights. Going beyond business, Local Leaders aims to inspire and motivate you to become the best version of yourself. It broadcasts LIVE via the Local Profile Facebook page (click here.)