June 14, 2017

As Saadia Baig scooped chili beans into a bowl, Asiya Shakir placed a heaping helping of salad and crackers onto a plate.

It was time for lunch, but the two women had no intentions of eating the food themselves — they were fasting until sunset in observance of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

Instead, the pair and six other volunteers served "Meals by Muslims" to homeless individuals on Wednesday at the Homeless Alliance's day shelter, 1724 NW 4.

Shakir, a local pediatrician, said she came up with the idea for the project because it seemed to be a fitting way to observe the themes of Ramadan.

The month of fasting began at sunset May 26. As one of the five pillars, or obligations, of Islam, it commemorates the divine revelation of the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad. Observant Muslims around the world abstain from food and drink from dawn to sunset during Ramadan.

"It is a month of blessing for us in contrast to the idea that it's a month of suffering," Shakir said Wednesday.

"And this just highlights that Muslim women are not marginalized. These are empowered women who are helping empower the less fortunate."

Shakir, a member of the American Muslim Association of Oklahoma City affiliated with the Grand Mosque, said she took her idea for the "Meals by Muslims" initiative to members of Muslim Women for Humanity. Nadira Choudry, the group's founder, and others in the metro-area organization liked the idea. With the Muslim faith community's support, the women raised the money to offer 300 meals a day at the Homeless Alliance during the entire month of Ramadan.

Dan Straughan, the Homeless Alliance's executive director, said the project was wonderful because of the Muslims' compassion and the length of their community service project.

"I don't know if we've ever had a group make that big of a commitment to serving this population on a volunteer basis," he said.

"To have them do it as part of the Ramadan celebration and giving back to the community without regard to station in life or what their faith is, it's really a blessing to the folks that we serve in the day shelter."

Harold Orange, one of the individuals who sat eating the meal of chili beans, crackers and salad, expressed his appreciation for the Muslim community's generosity.

"It's cool. Anybody that volunteers and helps, that's cool," he said. "I'm a Christian. I think Muslim people have their rights just like anybody else, so we need to stop with the Islamophobia."

Diverse backgrounds

Shakir, 29, said she was pleased that the Meals by Muslims project came together through the support of a diverse group of Muslims from different cities, mosques and backgrounds throughout the metro area.

She said the people who have been volunteering for the project are scientists, doctors, students, teachers, pharmacists, researchers and mental health advocates and many are immigrants or children of immigrants. On Tuesday, the women serving food represented three different metro-area mosques.

Though they were fasting, none of the women and two teens said they felt uncomfortable smelling and dishing out food that they couldn't eat.

Azra Buksh, a licensed professional counselor and Choudry's sister, said serving and interacting with the homeless made her more empathetic to their plight.

"We only fast for one month, but these people struggle with food and basic needs all year long," she said.

Buksh and Choudry, a teacher at Casady School, both live in Edmond and attend the Islamic Society of Edmond's mosque.

Choudry said the timing for the meal project couldn't have been better.

"With the political climate, we thought this was a good time to bring a more positive image of Muslim women," she said. "We love Oklahoma, and it's important for us to give back to the community. We love this country, and our heart is in America."

Baig, 42, a substitute teacher from Edmond, brought her daughter, Amal Jamshed, 15, and a friend's daughter to help serve meals.

"It's a way for the kids to understand praying it back, giving back and humanity, in general. This is what people do — they share," Baig said.

Meanwhile, Shakir said Meals by Muslim volunteers also would include men, more teens and individuals from the interfaith community, in addition to the women's group.

She said Ramadan's timing during May and June means that Muslims are fasting for long days, with sunset arriving about 8:45 each night.

However, the longer day simply means more time to reflect on Ramadan themes of charity, goodwill and faith, Shakir said.

"It's this great pause in our year that we take to better ourselves and really renew our relationship with God," she said.

"Why not take this opportunity to help people in our community?"

By Carla Hinton