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In Spirit of Ramadan, Muslims Serve Meals to Homeless

Volunteerism High During Holy Month

By Julie Rasicot
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, November 11, 2004; Page GZ05

Shaliq Islam knew he could have spent Sunday evening munching candy and lounging on the couch in his family's Bethesda home, but instead the 13-year-old chose to help serve a chicken dinner at a Washington homeless shelter.

So did his friend, Sabir Uddin, 13, of Germantown, and dozens of other local Muslims who served food provided by the Montgomery County Muslim Council and the Bangladesh Association of America to about 600 people at the Community for Creative Non-Violence homeless shelter and the nearby D.C. Central Kitchen.

Omar Ayyub, 16, helps the Montgomery County Muslim Council feed the needy Sunday at a District homeless shelter. (James M. Thresher -- The Washington Post)

"It's pretty cool. I get to help out people," said Shaliq as he took a break with several other volunteers from serving drinks on the women's floor of the homeless shelter on Second Street NW.

"If nobody did, how is anybody going to get anything done?" Sabir added. "If nobody even made this building, where would these people go?"

The event marked the third year that local Muslims have donated meals of traditional foods such as Sunday's chicken tandoori and vegetable biryani to the Washington homeless shelter during the holy month of Ramadan.

During Ramadan, which ends Sunday, Muslims are required to fast most days from dawn to dusk. Charity or almsgiving is a fundamental pillar of Islam, and Muslims use Ramadan as a time to give more to the community, said Rashid Makhdoom, a director and spokesman for the Montgomery County Muslim Council.

"Every Muslim is supposed to give out money in alms and charity, and the feeding of the poor is prescribed," said Makhdoom, 65, of North Potomac. "Before 9/11, Muslims mostly focused on our own community and after that we started paying attention to the larger community. It's kind of an outreach, fulfilling the tenets of Islam."

The idea for the event began with M. Abu Solaiman, president of the Bangladesh Association of America, a cultural and social organization with about 700 members in Maryland, Washington and Virginia.

Solaiman, 71, a retired businessman who lives in Potomac, said the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, served as a wake-up call to him and other area Muslims that they needed to help their neighbors here as well as those they help with money sent back to their home countries.

"My idea was that we should do something here. We are good Muslims. We have nothing to do with the terrorists," he said. "This is our country. We love this country. This country gave us opportunity, not only for us, but for our children. We should do good here, not only in our own country."

This is the second year that the Montgomery County Muslim Council has participated in the event, helping the Bangladesh Association of America raise about $4,000 to pay for the food prepared by the Bread and Kabab restaurant in Gaithersburg and delivered to the shelter and soup kitchen.

Volunteers rubbed elbows in the small kitchen on the women's floor of the shelter as they dipped spoons into large foil pans of vegetables bathed in a spicy, golden sauce, white rice with green peas, and tangy chicken tinted red from a marinade of yogurt and spices.

As the volunteers filled the plates of shelter residents, the scent of coriander and cumin filled the air. The food was prepared in halal style, in accordance with rules and traditions of Islam, with the spices toned down a bit to please many palates, the volunteers said.

The shelter residents seemed to enjoy the meal, said Sadia Chowdhury, 27, of Columbia, who was volunteering at the event for the first time.

"They were worried it would be spicy, but then they came back for seconds," she said.

At one of the long cafeteria tables, several women chatted as they finished their plates of rice and chicken. "It's all right. It kills the stomach pain" caused by hunger, one 26-year-old woman said of the meal. "It's good. I like spicy," added another woman.

Chowdhury said she enjoyed talking with the residents, who were "very upbeat" and friendly despite their difficult circumstances. The experience taught her some important lessons, she said.

"How lucky we are. How blessed we are," she said. "How to keep a smile on my face during difficult times because I see a lot of smiles around here."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company