Volunteers feed Chicago's homeless and hungry during Muslim fast
Volunteers feed Chicago's homeless and hungry during Muslim fast
They call it feeding it forward.
Every Sunday morning, dozens of volunteers gather in the basement of the Downtown Islamic Center on South State Street to fill brown bags with peanut butter-and-banana sandwiches, fresh fruit and water. Children decorate each package with stickers and crayon hearts before the group ventures to Lower Wacker Drive, feeding any hungry and homeless they encounter on the way and in the makeshift shelters below the city.
As Muslims around the world prepare to observe the holy monthlong fast of Ramadan, expected to begin Monday, the volunteers are stepping up their efforts. This week until early July, they will fan out on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays to deliver hundreds of bags — in hopes of helping those in need and setting an example for their children and community.
The effort, dubbed Forward Humanity, has provided an opportunity for Muslim-American parents to teach and model compassion for their children in the midst of a heated political season in which some rhetoric has targeted them. Its launch last fall coincided with a proposal from Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump that the government register and track Muslims in the U.S.
"It's not that I'm trying to promote Islam," said project founder Sanah Khan, 30, as her 5-year-old daughter Sarinah decorated paper bags with star stickers one recent Sunday. "I take (Trump) in a very positive way. I am actually very thankful because he gave us reasons to stand up and say we can do better. … People need to see the normal Muslims. This is home for us."
Inspiration for the project struck Khan during Ramadan last year, when her husband and daughter made umrah, a spiritual pilgrimage to Mecca, intended to help Khan recover from a number of personal struggles and to start a new chapter.
Every night of the journey, as fellow pilgrims broke their fast, she witnessed extraordinary generosity among strangers — a benevolence she wanted to model at home, and interpreted as an invitation from God.
"People give without even looking," Khan said. "People were giving to me. They didn't ask 'Are you hungry? How much do you need?' Whatever they had they just shared," and it was often the best of what they had.
Within months of Khan's return to Chicago, Trump began to chide Muslims during campaign rallies. If elected president, Trump said, he would protect the country from a secret terrorist army by expelling Syrian refugees from the U.S. and barring more from entering. He also called for closer monitoring of mosques.
In response, Khan said she stood on the sidewalk outside her State Street house of worship last fall holding a box of doughnuts and a sign that read: "Islam talks about peace." She was stunned by the reaction.
"I thought people would come to me for doughnuts," she recalled. "But so many Americans came to me just to give me a hug, apologizing on his behalf and saying, 'You don't have to stand here and defend your religion.'"
Khan went back to her mosque and suggested starting food deliveries to the city's homeless. A call for volunteers during the Friday congregational prayer drew dozens back to the mosque the following Sunday.
Since then, word has spread and attendance has grown.
One Sunday, a busload of students from Northwestern University lent their hands. Another Sunday, a Girl Scout troop from Bloomingdale participated, and on another the mosque partnered with a Jewish group. Occasionally, someone who once received a sandwich shows up to help. Muslim families regularly commute from South Barrington and Naperville to be a part of the movement.
Though the effort is based in the basement of a mosque, Khan said many volunteers are not Muslim and all are welcome, regardless of whether they're inspired by a religious tradition. But for the Muslim parents in particular, the Sunday gatherings provide a way to teach children that they are part of the broader Chicago community.
"They're teaching their kids to know, even as a Muslim, they're still part of all this," Khan said.
Modaser Rafiq-Dinnegan, of Lincoln Park, said she showed up with her infant daughter last fall after spotting the volunteer opportunity on Facebook. While she was moved to give money to help Syrian refugees last year, she said, the local aspect of this project appealed to her.
"I think the Muslim community does a lot for the Muslim community," she said. "If you do something in the community where you're living," it leaves a positive impression on others.
While giving charity is one of the five pillars of Islam, many Muslim elders and first-generation immigrants have channeled their philanthropy back to their homelands. Younger generations say there is a greater need to focus here at home.
Aliyah Banister, 28, a clinical social worker at the Islamic Foundation School in Villa Park, said philanthropy can be therapeutic for young people who feel unfairly defined by others. Giving gifts and charity removes hatred from the heart for both parties, Banister said, citing the Prophet Muhammad.
"This is who you are and this is what you stand for," she said. "You needn't feel ashamed you belong to something trying to make the world better. It helps that confidence."
Safaa Zarzour, vice chairman of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, said that during Ramadan the council will urge the faithful at about 60 mosques across the area to donate and participate in the Forward Humanity project. So far, funding for the project has come from the Downtown Islamic Center and donors, many of whom remain anonymous.
Zarzour said the project arose at a time when the council was looking for ways to engage more women and young people in the community. He said food plays a significant role in Islam, especially during Ramadan, when Muslims are expected to abstain from eating and drinking during daylight hours as a way to relate to those who don't fast by choice. The month begins with the sighting of a new moon, which most likely will appear Sunday night.
"One of the key goals of Ramadan that we've been taught ever since we're children is we feel what people feel every single day of the year," Zarzour said.
Khan said empathy can develop from both fasting and giving.
On a recent sunny weekday, Khan's daughter Sarinah was surprised to see the number of homeless staking out spots on the city's sidewalks. Khan said she knew she was doing the right thing when her daughter asked, with concern:
"Mom, who's feeding them today?"
"There are millions of hungry and homeless in America," Khan said. "They're in our backyard."