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Young Muslim men organize to clean up national parks as shutdown enters third week

Members of the national Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association gathered Sunday to clean up trash at national parks affected by the partial government shutdown. Above, Sarmad Bhatti cleans along the Mall. The group also assisted with cleanup in California, Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

A group of young Muslim men fanned out across the Mall shortly after sunrise Sunday to pick up litter and empty trash cans.

Following President Trump’s warning Friday that a partial government shutdown could last for months or even years, the men arrived with trash bags and gloves to do what the federal government is no longer doing — collecting trash. Their peers were doing the same over the weekend in national parks in Pennsylvania, Florida, California and Ohio.

“It’s just what we do,” Sarmad Bhatti, 23, said as he emptied trash cans along Independence Avenue. “If there’s an opportunity to serve, that is what Muslims do.”

The men are part of the youth group of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, a branch of Islam that preaches about the importance of tolerance and has faced persecution around the world. The group, whose members’ ages range from 15 to 40, said part of its goal is to dispel negative stereotypes about Muslims and to increase understanding of Islam, a core tenet of which is service.

Park Service takes ‘extraordinary step’ of dipping into entrance fees to bolster operations

Federal contract workers like Pablo Lazaro worry about saving money and paying bills as the government shutdown continues. (Video: Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)

“It’s our duty to come in and serve — not as a show, but as an act of faith,” said Saud Iqbal, a ­33-year-old information technology specialist. “I don’t think people realize that.”

Bhatti and Iqbal wore yellow vests with an American flag stitched on the back and black lettering that read “Muslims for Loyalty.” Together, they lugged a full trash bag from the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden toward their meeting spot near the Capitol.

“We’re just as American as anybody else,” Iqbal said. “We’re just as loyal as anybody else.”

When they stopped to catch their breath, nearly two hours into collecting trash, a passing jogger smiled and thanked them for volunteering.

Throughout the country, volunteers, cities, states and private agencies are attempting to fill the void created by the shutdown. They are doing so with little certainty about reimbursement and no sense of when the shutdown, now in its third week, will end.

The Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association, which has more than 5,000 members nationwide, organized cleanups at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Everglades National Park in Florida, Joshua Tree National Park in California and Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio.

At least seven people have died at national park sites since the shutdown began at midnight on Dec. 21. The parks have been largely unsupervised, trash cans are overflowing and toilets are locked or not being serviced.

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In the District, the city is paying for trash removal at the Mall and other federal parks at a cost of approximately $46,000 a week. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has urged Trump to end the shutdown, saying it hurts the city’s residents and businesses.

Many of the approximately 30 volunteers Sunday said they were surprised to see little obvious litter or overflowing trash cans on the sidewalks between the Washington Monument and the Capitol. But they did find full cans in need of emptying at the base of the Capitol, near the George Mason Memorial, and on Independence Avenue.

At the Mall’s eastern end, volunteers fished empty water bottles and a mitten out of the Capitol Reflecting Pool. Perrin McHugh and Raheel Tauyyab, both 18-year-olds from Northern Virginia, emptied a trash can together and placed a fresh bag in it.

McHugh, a senior at the Madeira School, a private school in Fairfax County, decided to join because her mom learned about the event on Twitter. She has been going to protests since Trump took office but said she liked the idea of picking up trash because “this is a concrete way to help people.”

“If the government isn’t going to take charge, then the people have to,” said McHugh, who lives in McLean.

Tauyyab, a freshman at George Mason University, joined the ­Ahmadiyya youth group when he was 15 and said he came out early Sunday because he is proud of his country and wants to take care of it.

“These parks belong to us, and they’re something we love,” said Tauyyab, who lives in Chantilly. “We’re breaking stereotypes everywhere, about what people think about Muslims and what people think about young people.”

Tauyyab, who was joined by volunteers wearing shirts that said #MeetAMuslim, noted that approximately 62 percent of Americans have never met a Muslim, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center study. He said he wants to change that by engaging in honest discussion, including with people who may be wary.

Farther west on the Mall, Faizan Tariq, a junior at Virginia Commonwealth University, stooped over to pick up bottle caps and cigarette butts.

Tariq, whose family moved to Alexandria from Pakistan when he was 3, said he did not hesitate to make the early-morning drive downtown.

“This is our country, and we have to take care of it, even if politicians are unwilling to,” he said.