On a frigid winter day two years ago, Mukit Hossain drove past a 7-Eleven in Herndon and noticed a large group of men, some wearing only sweat shirts, shivering like leaves in the parking lot.
Something made him stop and ask what they were doing. In broken English, one man explained that they were looking for work. With their chances as bleak as the weather at 3 in the afternoon, Hossain asked why they did not just give up and go home.
"We don't have much of a home to go to," Hossain recalls the man telling him.
From that encounter, a charity was born that ultimately has led to a government-sanctioned day-laborer site that has generated national attention.
Hossain called a meeting of civic and religious leaders, many of whom had worked quietly for years helping day laborers learn English, find housing and get medical care. He proposed that they join forces and collaborate under a name with a distinct mission: Project Hope and Harmony, whose sole goal would be to create and run an orderly site for itinerant laborers.
Over the objections of hundreds of residents who fear it will bring crime and disorder to the neighborhood, Herndon's Town Council granted Project Hope and Harmony permission last week to build and oversee such a site in the parking lot behind a former police station. The coalition expects to have it running in two to four months.
"I'm convinced that six months down the road, a lot of people who were concerned about the impact on the neighborhood will find it's really improved it," Hossain said last week as he walked around the parking lot where the coalition plans to build a canopied shelter to protect waiting laborers from sun and rain.
Project Hope and Harmony is itself a work in progress. It is an umbrella group, not a nonprofit organization. Although its members plan to file federal papers to become a nonprofit, the application for a grant of about $175,000 from Fairfax County to run the site was made in the name of Reston Interfaith, one of the groups that is part of the coalition.
Many of the groups and individuals that are part of Project Hope and Harmony were drawn to the cause of helping immigrants because of their faith.
"It was an outgrowth of the ministry we'd already been doing," said the Rev. Stephen Smith-Cobbs, pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church and a member of the group's executive council.
Although Trinity Presbyterian and other churches in and around Herndon had been sending volunteers to tutor immigrants in English and teach them how to become naturalized citizens, they felt many residents did not recognize their efforts, Smith-Cobbs said. So he and several members of his congregation attended the initial meeting that Hossain called in September.
For Hossain, helping immigrants, most from Central and South America, is a Muslim issue. Charity is one of the five pillars of Islam. So he raised money from Muslim businessmen in Herndon to buy 400 winter coats for the laborers, brought them food through another charity he started, called Food Source, and even rounded up day laborers to attend a Thanksgiving dinner at an Iraqi restaurant where falafel, not turkey, was served.
"I consider them my neighbors," said Hossain, an immigrant from Bangladesh who came to the United States 30 years ago to attend Duke University.
Others became involved because of their interest in social and civic issues.
Joel Mills, for example, ran for Town Council in the last election and spoke out about the need to have a formal site to replace the disorder at the impromptu 7-Eleven site.
Esther Johnson is a retired computer specialist with the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. In retirement, she has become an advocate for affordable housing.
"The day-laborer site came to my attention because it's so visible," said Johnson, who like Mills is on Project Hope and Harmony's executive council. "I began to see it as a tremendous problem for the town. Driving into town from Dulles, it's one of the first things you see. It's not neat. It's not sanitary. Nobody lets the guys in to use the bathroom, so they pee in the shrubbery. It's not a good situation. Nobody's bailing us out on this, so the town of Herndon has to deal with it."
When he organized the first meeting, Hossain did not realize so many organizations and individuals had been trying to find a solution to the informal day-laborer site for many years.
"Everyone was in favor of a day-laborer site," he said of the consensus at the initial meeting.
They continued to meet and decided to enlist a Realtor to scout potential sites. But they met rejection at every turn. The owner of a vacant lot would not agree to let them use his land, nor would any business with a large parking lot they approached.
The town-owned parking lot behind a police station that is relocating was a last resort.
After applying for a permit, Project Hope and Harmony sent letters to 1,600 property owners nearby and attended countless neighborhood meetings to address concerns.
Even some who argued against the sanctioned site praise Project Hope and Harmony as a group of volunteers trying to do right by the day laborers and the community. "I believe they're dedicated in their concern with trying to help people," said Ted Hochstein, a Herndon planning board member who lives near the site and opposed it.
One month ago, the organization hired Bill Threlkeld to run the site. A Herndon resident and former Peace Corps volunteer, Threlkeld had been running a charity he founded 12 years ago called the Center for Native Lands. The center helped indigenous people in Latin America map their territory so the governments could not sell it off to commercial interests. He also had been a land use planner for Roanoke and Stafford counties.
For the time being, Threlkeld has been working from a desk in a shared office at Reston Interfaith, whose social workers have assisted day laborers. Eventually, Project Hope and Harmony plans to establish its own office.
Leaders of the group are confident that money will be the least of their worries.
Raul Fernandez, a co-owner of the Washington Capitals, has donated $35,000, about 20 percent of the estimated operating budget for the first year. Jeff Franz of Lincoln Property Co., whose office is a half-mile from the current day-laborer site, said he expects the real estate industry to contribute money as well.
A bigger concern is building bridges with some critics of the site by inviting neighborhood associations to join a community advisory council. The strategy is to address some of the fears that led so many neighbors to oppose the proposal.
To that end, Hossain wants to buy bicycles for the day laborers so they can get to the site without taking shortcuts across private property. The All Dulles Area Muslim Society Center, a large mosque in Sterling, has offered to provide a van to transport workers to and from the site. And Johnson said volunteers from churches have offered to drive the remaining workers home after the site closes at 11 a.m. so they will not hang around the neighborhood.
"I don't agree with what they do and what they stand for," said Hochstein, the planning board member. "But I do sympathize with their cause, and I appreciate their efforts."