Muslims put faith into action for Ramadan

Last weekend, Muslims served some 18,000 needy Americans in 14 US cities to mark their 'Humanitarian Day for the Homeless.'

Two rows of tables, stretching the length of the gymnasium, are neatly stacked with brand-new items: warm sweat shirts and caps in several colors, thick socks, bright yellow ponchos to ward off the weather, and hygiene kits stocked with towels, toothpaste and a toothbrush, soap, and a comb. There are bags of food, bottles of water, and, for the children, backpacks and toys.

Young Muslims in matching T-shirts stand ready to help those coming through the line to pick the right size or color. Downstairs in the Tobin Community Center, another cadre of volunteers, including medical students, give health screenings and answer questions about dental care.

During their holy month of Ramadan, local Muslim organizations in Boston have joined together to host their first Humanitarian Day for the Homeless.

The charitable event is already a five-year tradition in Los Angeles, where it began under the auspices of the ILM Foundation and Islamic Relief, an international relief and development agency based in Buena Park, Calif. This year it spread to 14 US cities, where last weekend an estimated 18,000 homeless and needy Americans of all faiths were served.

Charitable giving is one of the "five pillars of Islam," with Muslims expected to donate 2.5 percent of their income annually. But it's clear from the enthusiastic turnout of more than 250 volunteers in Roxbury – from Girl Scout troops to students from MIT and Harvard – that expressing their faith directly is particularly appealing.

"This is faith in action," says Ibrahim Kanan, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Muslim Student Association. For Fahmeen Kahn, a finance major at Suffolk University in Boston, "it's an opportunity to give back to the community. Also, Islam teaches that you should want for other people what you want for yourself."

As a side benefit, it has helped to unify the Boston-area Muslim community, though planning for it began only this summer.

"People were determined to do it – no event has brought people together like this one," says Nataka Crayton, of the Islamic Multi-Service Organization, who served as local coordinator. "It brings you that much closer to the needy, and you see they aren't outside of us, they are us."

For the 780 people who made their way to the community center on Saturday, it was a welcome event. Isabel Cabrera, originally from the Dominican Republic, brought her 6-month-old son, Jayden. Along with information from health tests and other items, she left with a sturdy baby-care kit.

James G.P. Magee, a friendly disabled man who recently got his own apartment, says he had been homeless for seven years. "I slept through the big snowstorm out on Boston Common, when people died there," he recalls. "But I believe in my God, and He kept telling me, 'Don't give up.' "

Though it's not easy for him to speak, Mr. Magee is eager to tell his story. "Do you know what the G.P. stands for?" he asks. "God's Property – that's me. He gave me the strength to get through."

One of the volunteers carries a bag for Magee as he moves along the line of tables.

While Muslim organizations do the planning and organizing for the event, a few local businesses in each city donate food. Islamic Relief provides T-shirts for the volunteers, a banner for each city, training and counseling throughout the process, and matching grants to help with costs.

Humanitarian Day can also be an interfaith project. Baptists participated in Louisiana, Catholics in both Chicago and Newark, N.J. And nationally, the 24,000 hygiene kits were provided by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), which has a long history of emergency preparedness. The church also has a "fast offering," where members donate money they would have spent on food.

Islamic Relief and the LDS church have, in fact, developed a partnership over the past three years, working together on the Asian tsunami, Pakistan earthquake, hurricane Katrina, the more recent Indonesian earthquake, and the Lebanon crisis.

"We've worked with the Mormon church to send over 195 tons of aid to Lebanon, distributing it through the Hariri Foundation and the UN Works and Relief Agency," says Mostafa Mahboob, Islamic Relief spokesman. "They give supplies, and we pay for all the shipping. In other parts of the world, we also have our own people on the ground to handle projects. We've probably worked together on [efforts worth] $20 million."

Islamic Relief has spent $2 million on Katrina's aftermath and still has full-time staff in the Gulf coast region. The church contributed to their Katrina effort by providing hygiene kits and cleaning kits – buckets, brushes, gloves, masks, and bleach to help people clean up their homes, says Mr. Mahboob.

The relief and development agency, which originated in Great Britain, has survived the scrutiny of US law enforcement officials, who closed down three other Muslim charities for suspected ties to terrorist groups.

"We are very open and transparent; our financial records are online," Mahboob explains. They have established systems to keep track of monies and have for three years won the highest rating, four stars, from Charity Navigator. Benefiting somewhat, perhaps, from the close-down of other Islamic charities, Islamic Relief had its biggest year of US donations in 2005 – receiving more than $45 million.

While most religions emphasize charitable giving, it's a priority for Muslims. "Anyone who studies Islam sees that charity is the second-most important thing to prayer," says Clareen Menzies, Islamic Relief's national coordinator for Humanitarian Day. "It's a big part of our religion, especially during Ramadan, and it's important to have direct contact with people who need help."

Ramadan is the ninth month on the Muslim lunar calendar. It's when Muslims worldwide fast during daylight hours. Fasting during Ramadan is one of the five pillars of the faith, it's considered a special time of worship, contemplation, and seeking forgiveness.

"Fasting stops your rhythm of consuming, and you begin to think better," says Imam Abdullah Faaruuq, of Masjid for the Praising of Allah, an African-American mosque in Roxbury that is the oldest in the city and a supporter of today's event.

For many involved in Humanitarian Day activities, the experience spurs a desire to do much more than an annual event. Nazia Naqvi, of the Muslim American Society in Chicago, coordinated distribution at seven sites in that city. "We need to do more, because the homeless population continues to be ignored," she says. "If organizations [from different faiths] could come together, we could accomplish a lot."

Ms. Menzies says interest is so great they've had to turn away volunteers in Los Angeles. She plans brainstorming sessions to consider how to build on this year's national experience.

In Boston, they were hoping for a bigger turnout. They passed out cards announcing the event to shelters and social service agencies, but for many homeless, getting around the city isn't easy.

So at the end of the day, volunteers packed up the remaining items to transport them directly to community shelters. "Some volunteers also gave packages to homeless individuals on the street," says volunteer Shaza Fadel. "So, thankfully to God, we served almost 2,000 low-income and homeless individuals in the Boston area."

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