New York City Muslims work to build food security during Ramadan

One project in Brooklyn will distribute free gift cards for Muslim-owned businesses among working-class immigrant families in the area.

(RNS) — It’s the holy month of Ramadan, and Asad Dandia is spending his days fasting from food. But equally important to his practice of his faith, he says, is ensuring that his neighbors in Brooklyn have food to put on the table amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Dandia, a community organizer, will spend the next few weeks coordinating deliveries of gift cards for Muslim-owned businesses to working-class immigrant families in the area.

“We wanted to build a system where we could support our local businesses and sustain these families, who already live at the margins, for as long as we possibly can,” said Dandia, co-founder of the volunteer group Muslims Giving Back, housed at Sunset Park’s immigrant-majority Muslim Community Center. “These families can give business to their local stores while getting the groceries and household products they need.”

From Brooklyn to the Bronx, Muslim community organizations are building mutual aid networks to support Muslim families who need food, particularly during Ramadan, when many families rely on free nightly meals from local mosques.

Dozens of families pick up groceries from the Muslim Community Center every Friday. Photo courtesy of MCC

Muslims Giving Back is purchasing gift cards to Arab, South Asian and Muslim-owned pharmacies, supermarkets and halal meat markets — some Muslim families in the area only eat zabiha halal meat, Dandia noted — at discounted bulk rates. Volunteers will then distribute $150 worth of cards to families in Brooklyn and Queens. 

Current partners include Balady Halal Food Market, Nile Ridge Pharmacy, Met Fresh Supermarket, Dwip Bangla Grocery and Green House Deshi Supermarket. All are based in Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge and Kensington neighborhoods, with large numbers of Muslim families — particularly those with immigrant, working-class, refugee and undocumented statuses — that are no longer earning the income they need to sustain themselves. 


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Dandia also partnered with Shahana Hanif, a Brooklyn-based community organizer running to be the first Muslim woman on the New York City Council, to connect with Bangladeshi families. Hanif has been independently coordinating a similar effort to combat food insecurity among local Bangladeshi families, particularly the elderly, single mothers and people who have lost family members to the disease.

“This is a collective effort, centering people who are most impacted and organized by people who are impacted,” Dandia said. “We’re not reaching out to the government, we’re not reaching out to millionaires. This is a community coming together, with all of us pooling our resources to support one another.”

Every day during Ramadan, he and other volunteers are distributing free iftar meals in Bay Ridge to anyone in need. Muslims Giving Back is also coordinating weekly homeless feedings, meal deliveries to first responders and families in need, as well as a weekly food pantry in Brooklyn, where 50 families that are currently out of work and unable to file for unemployment come to pick up food regularly.

New York City is home to about 22% of America’s Muslim population, as well as close to 100,000 Muslim-owned businesses and nearly 300 mosques. Particularly during Ramadan, when many mosques offer communal iftar meals nightly, those mosques have often served as a place where New Yorkers in need could eat a free meal.

But with mosques closed due to the outbreak, which has devastated the city and taken a disproportionate toll on people of color, that’s no longer the case.

Last week, New York City also announced plans to provide half a million free halal meals to Muslims in need during the holy month.

“One of Ramadan’s most noble callings is to feed the hungry,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio told media. “And it’s a crucial part of how the holiday is celebrated, to remember to be there for those in need. And that is now harder than ever.”

Every day at 7 p.m., the Muslim Community Center and Muslims Giving Back hold a Ramadan food drive in Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge neighborhood. Photo courtesy of MCC

Since mid-March, a record 26.5 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits. The crisis of lost income is particularly acute for many Muslim families in the city: Muslims comprise close to 40% of the city’s taxi drivers and well over half the city’s street food vendors.

According to the Street Vendor Project, street vendors, day laborers, delivery workers and other precariously employed workers are generally ineligible for small-business relief funds, paid sick leave, unemployment insurance and other government benefits.

Dozens of Muslim-led support efforts are underway across the city to support families in need of aid.

Volunteers with the Queens Mutual Aid, which began in late March, are also working to provide groceries to Muslim families in need. The group, which serves to connect neighbors who can help with neighbors who need help, receives 25 requests for aid a day. 

“When Ramadan was around the corner, we realized that we really need to amplify what we’re doing to make sure we’re hitting everyone in need,” volunteer Rima Begum said. The group plans to partner with local mosques to cover 100 Muslim families’ needs for 30 days. 


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“I think as Muslims, one of the biggest tests for us is service to the community,” Begum, a social worker, said. “During Ramadan, we’re fasting, but we’re also reflecting and asking ourselves if we’re doing enough for those around us.” 

Queens Mutual Aid will soon be delivering prepared meals to those in need through a partnership with the Ahmadi Muslim-led nonprofit Humanity First and Queens mosque Bait-uz-Zafar, which have been serving 800 packaged meals daily for the past three weeks.

“This has been a really trying few months for the community in Queens,” said Asad Bajwa, public affairs director for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community’s Queens chapter at Bait-uz-Zafar mosque. “We’ve been here in this community for 100 years now. It’s been a blessing to be able to help alleviate our neighbors’ food insecurity.”

Members of the New York Police Department join volunteers from Humanity First and Bait-uz-Zafar mosque to distribute meals in the Queens borough of New York. Photo courtesy Bait-uz-Zafar

Last week, in preparation for Ramadan, Humanity First and Bait-uz-Zafar delivered a month’s worth of staple groceries to 50 Muslim families. The organizations say they’ve seen a spike in volunteers since Ramadan began.

“This is something our faith teaches us, that we should give our wealth, time and whatever we have to donate,” Bajwa said. “One of the ways we’re doing that is volunteering our time, taking an extra risk to our health, by coming out and distributing meals.”

The Arab-American Family Support Center has halted its usual community iftars and shifted toward distributing emergency aid to New Yorkers in need. During the first weekend of Ramadan, Yemeni-owned merchants including Keyfood and Saba Live Poultry joined forces with local Islamic nonprofits to give away hundreds of bags of food to Muslim families in the Bronx and in Brooklyn to help sustain them during Ramadan.

In one week, the Islamic Center at New York University, Penny Appeal USA, The Zakat Fund of NYC and the Imam Mahdi Association of Marjaeya have together raised over $300,000 to provide relief to families of all backgrounds facing financial hardship.

“In New York City and surrounding areas, there is severe food shortage, unemployment and homelessness that is plaguing our community,” ICNYU associate chaplain Faiyaz Jaffer said. “During the course of these days and nights of the holy month, which emphasizes community, brotherhood and sisterhood, there is an opportunity for us to collectively come to the support of others during their time of need.”