Islamic center serves holiday meals to homeless

Posted at 7:12 PM, Dec 24, 2015
and last updated 2015-12-24 19:26:58-05

It’s a familiar story – members of a house of worship make meals and serve them for the poor at Christmas time. 

It was a new experience, though, for members of the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati in West Chester, who cooked and served Wednesday night for residents of the Esther Marie Hatton Center for Women in Mount Auburn and the David and Rebecca Barron Center for Men in Queensgate.

Both are run by Shelterhouse, the organization formerly known as The Drop Inn Center.

Volunteers from the mosque bought the ingredients out of their own pockets, and then cooked a meal of rice, chicken, macaroni and cheese and brownies. Then the male volunteers served the meal at the men’s shelter and the female and children volunteers served the meal for the women’s shelter.

At the women’s shelter, the dinner was much like any other, except that several of the servers wore a hijab, a scarf that hides the hair, ears and neck. Also, just before the meal was served at 5:30, the women spread out a white blanket in front of the serving line and prostrated themselves for their evening prayer.

The mosque leadership has been looking for an opportunity to do good works beyond the West Chester area for some time, because, as Afreen Asif put it, “When we serve other people, we are serving God. If we do not expect anything in return, we will have a great reward, in this world as well as in the hereafter.”

Asif, 38, leads the mosque’s Rahma Community Services, an initiative the mosque started three years ago to provide social services for local Muslims, as previously reported. Rahma has been “warming up” for its larger mission by doing small pilot programs such food drives, winter coat collections and serving at the shelters.

“One thing we always try to do is to keep our minds and hearts open to helping people, regardless of their faith,” said Shakila Ahmad, president of the mosque.

Most American Muslims don’t celebrate Christmas, but because most people are off work, Muslims use it as a time to visit family, which often involves the exchanging of gifts. Mosque member Dima Burak, 38, who has four children in the Lakota School District, encourages her children to participate in the gift exchanges at their schools.

“It brings joy to my heart when I see people happy, even if I don’t celebrate myself,” she said.

And it’s rough for Americans who do celebrate Christmas to do without basic human needs at this time of year, Ahmad noted.

The residents of the women’s shelter seemed to appreciate the thought, although some were reluctant to come to dinner as long as a TV crew from one of the local stations was present. Those who talked with this reporter didn’t want their last names printed because they had loved ones who didn’t know they were homeless.

Shirley, 58, who has lived in the shelter since October, said she was “blown away” by the mosque’s gesture. Although she had recently fallen on hard times, she said, she’s used to being well off enough to help others. “It’s weird being on the receiving end,” she said.

Another resident, Nia, who has lived in the shelter for four months, said it was “really nice for them to take time out to cook for us and take it to the center.” The meal was tasty, she said, but she saved her macaroni and cheese to feed a couple of stray cats.

The chance to do good works wasn’t the only reason the mosque members helped out. It’s also to their advantage to be seen in the community and give people a different face of Islam than the one they see from groups such as ISIS.

“I work here, my kids are here. I’m very much a part of the community,” said Asif, who lives in West Chester with her two daughters and does research for Procter & Gamble. “My kids play basketball and soccer, just like other Americans.”

One server, Fairfield resident Yasmeen Khaja, 60, said she has lived in the United States since 1981, longer than she lived in her home country of India.

It’s a tough time to be a Muslim in America, with presidential candidates such as Donald Trump calling for measures such as registration of Muslims and the prohibition of Muslim immigrants. “It’s atrocious. It’s absolutely horrible for such terrible things to come out of people’s mouths who are supposed to be leaders and should really know better,” Ahmad said.

Burak, who is originally from Syria, would like to see the United States welcome more of her compatriots who are fleeing the civil war there. “They just want to be safe, anywhere in the world,” she said.

She wants to be an example of an open-minded person who loves everyone.

“I am a sister of all human beings, and I want to react to hatred with love and a smile,” she said. “I don’t want to be defensive and hide out at home with fear, because I have nothing to hide from. I believe in my religion. It is beautiful, like all other religions.”