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Thursday, September 24, 2009

Diverse crowd of leaders and activists attend 2nd annual IR USA iftar in Washington, D.C

Islamic Relief USA recently organized its second annual community iftar in the greater Washington, D.C. area on August 26, attracting a wide array of attendees. In addition to the many distinguished guests who attended the event, Islamic Relief USA also sent representatives to many other iftars such as those hosted on Capitol Hill, at the US Department of Agriculture, the US Department of State, the British Embassy, among others.

Islamic Relief USA's principal office, which is located in Alexandria, VA, held its 2nd Annual iftar at The Afghan Restaurant in Virginia. The evening began with introductions and networking with Islamic Relief USA's staff , partner organizations, local imams and leaders of Islamic organizations.

Among the guests in attendance were Max Finberg , Director of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives of USDA; Dalia Mogahed, Advisor to President Obama's Faith-Based and Community Initiatives Council; Jannah Scott from the Department of Homeland Security; Sam Worthington, President of InterAction; Manal Omar from the US Institute for Peace; Muhammad Mudassir Tipu, Counselor of The Embassy of Pakistan; Henry Cole, Co-Founder of MedPharm; Imam Magid (Mohamed Hagmagid Ali), Vice President of ISNA; and a few members of the Congressional Muslim Staffers Association (CMSA). Organizations such as the Council on American Islamic Relations, Muslim American Society, and the Muslim Public Affairs Councils were also represented.

Ambassador Tony Hall, Director of the Alliance to End Hunger and Former U.S. Senator (Ret.), was the keynote speaker and he addressed the theme of the evening, 'A Caring World', in his heartfelt tribute. He spoke of his experience working with Muslims for the humanitarian cause and recalled his 22-day fast to call attention to those suffering from hunger domestically and internationally. Ambassador Hall emphasized the fact that poverty and hunger are detrimental to children and are leading to thousands of deaths around the world. He encouraged the attendees to work together to campaign for hungry and malnourished people.

Many of those who attended displayed an outpour of support for Islamic Relief USA since the event, and have had great praise for the advocacy work that the organization has been spearheading.

The Public Affairs function of Islamic Relief USA was established in January 2007 to create a circle of allies – with like-minded NGOs, diverse faith-based organizations, embassies, and most importantly with the US government. The opportunities that have been the fruit of these efforts have given IR USA increased visibility in the public sphere.

The Ramadan Action Guide: Advocacy Resource on Hunger and Poverty, co-published by Islamic Relief USA, The Alliance to End Hunger, and ONE was featured at the iftar. If you would like to receive a copy in the mail, please email

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Ramadan in Chechnya (Russian Fed.)

Selima Salamova is an aid worker with Islamic Relief in Chechnya (Russian Federation). In a recent diary entry, she reflected on the huge impact that Ramadan food parcels – or “boxes from the sky” - can have on those who have so little.

The names Ramzan and Marha are very popular in Chechnya, the first for a boy, the second for a girl. Both mean ‘Ramadan.’ People say that if a child is born during the month of Ramadan then these are the best names to give them. Both my children were born during this holy month and half of the newborns in the hospital were given these names.

Ramzan Mutalipova was one of the volunteers helping out with our Ramadan food distribution in Grozny. He had volunteered to drive the mini-van to pick up the food boxes from the warehouse and take them to the distribution point. But he was also here to pick up a Ramadan food box for his fifteen-year-old sister, Marha.

Marha was just two-years-old when the family’s house in Vedeno village was destroyed in a rocket attack. Her mother was killed instantly and Marha was later found clinging to her lifeless body.

The young girl lost both her legs in this tragic incident. She was one of the young people who have been given a food parcel this year. Many of those who received Islamic Relief’s support are disabled. Like Marha, they have lost limbs during the war or as a result of landmines. The food parcel was a small gift but it was wonderful to see Marha’s face light up as she received it.

At the same distribution in Grozny, I saw a grey-haired lady with a black scarf standing away from the line of other parents waiting to collect a food parcel for their disabled child. The lady was twisting a bunch of papers in her hands but apparently she was not on our distribution list. As I passed her she asked, “Can I still get a box if I’m not on the list?” I asked if she has a disabled child and she showed me a document stating that her son was blind.

One of the most difficult challenges that aid workers must overcome in their work is not to become immune to the great and overwhelming sorrow that they encounter. One needs to be able to hear the pain and hardship of each person as if it is the only story he or she has heard – to place oneself on the other side of the line or distribution point, waiting for that parcel of food. Only then is it possible to begin to understand the lives of those who are less fortunate.

The lady who wants a food parcel for her son is Tamara. She tells me that he was injured in a bomb blast that killed his two elder brothers as they made their way to
school. Her remaining family, her husband and two sons, have only just moved from one of the temporary accommodation centers in Grozny to a new plot of land provided by the government. She has not managed to register at her new place yet
which is why she was not on our distribution list.

I looked at the small lady before me and wondered how she survived the tragedy of losing her sons and living in such difficult conditions. Fortunately we always bring extra food boxes to accommodate people like Tamara so I was able to put her name on the list and ensure she and her family have enough food for Ramadan.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Ramadan in India

Danish Aziz is Islamic Relief’s Program Manager in India. For him, Ramadan shines light upon the disparity between the rich and poor, between those who enjoy the festivities of the month and those who barely have enough food to survive.

Ramadan is of course a month of fasting, piety and religious devotion for Muslims around the world. But for me, Ramadan also invokes images of delicious food and the chance to sample tasty delicacies and mouth-watering dishes from different cultures.

I love walking around Delhi’s Old City late at night visiting the different shops and stalls, accompanied by the aroma of the special dishes that are prepared during this month. If you walk through the streets near to the Jama Masjid then you can enjoy a host of delicious foods, from vegetarian delights to amazing sweets.

I have seen how people observe Ramadan across India, from rural Bihar, to Gujarat, to the mosques of Kerala. In every place, no matter how hard their circumstances the season instills people with a glow and a festive spirit.

But as an aid worker, I know that not everyone in India is able to enjoy Ramadan in this way. Many cannot afford basic food items let alone the luxury treats that are on offer. I have met people who have no food but dry hard lumps of powdered cereal, which is all they eat just to keep them going throughout the day. For many giving up a meal in the middle of the day is not just a requirement of Ramadan, but a necessity throughout the whole year.

In Bangalore, which is my second home, it is a common sight to see children in the slums running with small containers at sundown. They are collecting their ration of ganjee, a porridge made from rice, curd and mint leaves. It is usually made as part of a collective community effort, the ‘haves’ helping the ‘have nots.’ I believe that there are enough resources for all of us to survive, but that it is the blessed few who share what they have with others.

Every year, Islamic Relief distributes food parcels to those who are most in need. We start our preparations long before Ramadan begins, planning our distributions based on where people are most in need of our help. Sometimes people come up to us to ask for our help, but we also have to find those who are too ashamed to ask for assistance.

Often we distribute food parcels in areas that have been recently affected by disaster such as floods, as in Bihar. When I was there, I had to wade through deep water to reach tiny settlements and villages to give them packages of food.

India is a country of great diversity where people’s diets change every 100 kilometers or so. We respect this and over the years we have tried to ensure that the food parcels we give match the various cultural and dietary differences, and try to include local foods wherever possible so that people get the food of their choice and liking. So a villager in West Bengal will get their choice of parboiled rice, while someone in Andhra Pradesh will be able to eat the finest Sona Masuri rice.

There are times when aid work can be routine like any other job, but it is said that you are rewarded 70 times for your good deeds during Ramadan and this realization helps to light up our lives. Older women often hold my hands and thank us for delivering these packs to them. They sometimes go as far as to say that it is Allah and then people like us who help them in their times of need. But I tell that we are just the delivery people for the thousands of donors around the world who care about them and want to feed the hungry during Ramadan.

Projects like Ramadan food distributions are essential to help people in their time of need but over the last 25 years Islamic Relief has also moved towards promoting sustainable development in India. This means reducing people’s dependency on aid and focusing on education, livelihood support and micro-finance assistance.

We are now working in some of the industrial slums of Western Uttar Pradesh in northern India, providing 7,000 girls with education and vocational training. We also support more than 1,000 orphans by providing them with healthcare and education, as well as providing their families with interest-free loans and the support to make a living.

In Ramadan, perhaps more than any other time, I feel honored to be a part of this work and to see the change that it brings to people’s lives. There is a lot to do, but all in good time.

To read more about Islamic Relief's work in India, click here.

To support Islamic Relief's work in India, donate today, or e-mail this post to a friend.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Ramadan in Egypt

Fatma Tharwat is an Islamic Relief aid worker in Egypt. In a recent diary entry, she tells of the difficulties faced by one elderly couple but the joy they still feel during the month of Ramadan.

Driving from Ayyat town towards the village of Al-Arab the road finally ended and we were surrounded by nothing more than green fields and grazing sheep and cattle. With no other option, we took the food parcels we had in our arms and walked for miles and miles to the first hut on the edge of the village.

The villages surrounding Ayyat are very poor and people here live far below the poverty line. There are no medical or educational services as people are preoccupied with finding enough food for supper and ensuring they have somewhere to sleep at night.

The first hut that we came to was very simple; it was made from mud with a roof of palm leaves. There was just one room and no kitchen, bathroom, running water or electricity. The house was even devoid of basic furniture such as beds or a table.

This was the home of 70-year-old Mouha and her husband of 40 years, 75-year-old Soliman. Mouha lost her eyesight last year because she could not afford the treatment she needed and Soliman has problems with his spine which makes moving around very difficult and painful.

The elderly couple survive on a small monthly pension which they use to purchase food, clothes and medication. They are at an age when they should be enjoying peace of mind but instead are struggling to have enough food. The only possession they own in their hut is a small mat and a couple of pieces of clothing that hang from the wall.

Last year when Mouha’s eyes began to hurt the couple had to visit the hospital for treatment. Soliman desperately searched for money to pay for the medication his wife needed but could only afford to buy one month’s supply. She had an operation that did not work and is now on medication that consumes more than half their meager income.

When I gave Mouha her Ramadan food parcel she held my hand and said, “I had a dream about you last night. Yesterday I dreamt that a young woman visited us and she had a bag with her that was full of our favorite foods, including macaroni that I have wanted to eat for so long.

Soliman explained that his wife had been longing to eat macaroni for a week but they did not have any money and that they had not eaten a nourishing meal for over a month. I was speechless and wished I had visited them a month ago to ease their suffering.

Soliman said, “Normally we live on bread and cheese. We don’t eat every day and often go to sleep without supper. We never eat meat or even vegetables.”

Even if the couple do receive a little food from their neighbors, they do not have a fridge keep it fresh. But as Mouha told me, they are so desperate for food that they
will eat it even if it has gone bad.

"Ramadan is a month of generosity and charity,” said Mouha. “I didn’t sleep the night before they announce the first day of Ramadan because I am excited like a small child. I love to fast even if we have nothing to break it with but bread and water. Even though fasting is hard at my age, I still find so much joy in it.”

After we have broken our fast, we sit outside in front of the fields. I can’t see them anymore but I can feel the cool air and enjoy drinking tea and listening to the Qur’an on the radio.

Mouha told me that in the winter they don’t have anything to keep them warm except a single blanket. Every night they sleep on the cold bare floor and huddle together to try to keep each other warm. I could feel their helplessness and their agony, but also their hope and faith.

"God never forgets us,” Soliman says. “Sometimes our neighbors help us cook food, clean our house and wash our clothes. And here you are with this food parcel. This parcel means so much to us; before you came to our house we didn’t have a morsel to eat and were starving. This will be our only source of food this Ramadan but it will mean that I will be able to fast with a strong heart now.”

As Soliman went through the food items with overwhelming joy and handed them to Mouha, I thought of the donors around the world and how far their generosity had come – all the way to an elderly couple in a small village in Egypt. Their dedication and devotion helped us reach the poorest of the poor, and that makes all the difference. I then watched as Mouha took the packet of macaroni in her hands, hugged it to her and said with eyes full of tears, “Thank you –thank you.”

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

WaPo Mentions 'Day of Dignity'

The Washington Post's website recently mentioned the 'Day of Dignity' and the Obama administration's efforts to focus on interfaith volunteerism.

The article describes the United We Serve campaign, which encourages Americans to help out in their communities in different ways. The 'Day of Dignity' was mentioned as an example.

An excerpt from the article is below:

Muslim-American community organizations are working to help communities, from Atlanta to Baltimore and from Phoenix to Philadelphia, through Muslim Americans Answer the Call. These community groups are offering programs focused on health care, the environment, education, and community renewal in communities across the country.

Volunteer projects such as the Day of Dignity on Aug. 29, sponsored by Islamic Relief USA in Baltimore and 19 other cities, during which Muslim-American volunteers invite volunteers from diverse faith traditions to provide compassionate care to all those in need regardless of color, race or creed.

You can read the entire article here.

The 'Day of Dignity' has already helped hundreds of people in Fort Thompson, Chicago, Baltimore and Philadelphia.

There are still 15 more locations that the 'Day of Dignity' will be visiting.

Find out more at

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Ramadan in Iraq

Hadeel Al-Tak is the head of Islamic Relief’s Gender and Family department in Iraq. In this diary entry, she explains what the holy month of Ramadan is like in her native Baghdad.

With the dawn of the first day of Ramadan, you feel that something has changed inside you. Something has captured your heart and filled it with complete serenity. You collect your soul and prepare to fast during the days and pray during the nights, in the hope of atoning for your sins. Before Ramadan comes people spend so much time getting ready; markets are busy and the cost of food increases as everyone wants to indulge their family during this noble month.

Baghdad, where I live, is trying to recover from a tragedy and mend its wounds. The people who live here hope that they will wake each morning during Ramadan to the sound of birds and the smell of flowers and not to the explosions that have racked this city for so many years.

Baghdad’s mosques wait in anticipation of the faithful and their prayers, and the breakfast tables are spread full of food for the poor and hungry. It is common for people to knock on our door in the morning to ask for food or drink, and we give whatever we can.

When I break my fast in the evening and put the first morsel of food in my mouth, I always remember those who have been hungry for so many days and nights, those who have no water to quench their thirst, while I am safe and well.

I work with the most vulnerable people in society; widows, orphans, the sick, the elderly and those who have no one to turn to but God. These are the people we provide Ramadan food parcels for. The children are so excited to see what is inside their parcel when it arrives. This year it contains meat, sugar, lentils and oil.

But I know that people do not need or want to rely on this aid forever. I run a project that aims to empower widows by helping them to start their own small businesses. These women work so hard to meet the needs of their children and to ensure that they can provide them with the joys of Ramadan. I have noticed how they gradually become more confident and happy as their wages have increased, enabling them to prepare early for Ramadan this year.

During this month I remember God’s blessings for us as He enables me and my colleagues to carry on assisting those in need, and the strength He gives me that allows me to carry on when I remember the tragic scenes I have witnessed in Baghdad, Fallujah and Erbil.

During the year, the fortunate wait for Ramadan to pay their zakat, while the less fortunate wait to receive this charity. At Islamic Relief, we use this month to build a bridge between the two, and to ease the suffering of those in need, whoever and wherever they may be.

Ramadan in Gaza

Hatem Shurrab is an aid worker with Islamic Relief in Gaza. In a recent diary entry he reflected on the mixed emotions felt by Gaza's population during the holy month of Ramadan, just eight months after the last conflict.

Ramadan in Gaza is different this year. Every year the poverty gets worse but this Ramadan many hundreds of families are also trying to cope with the agony of having lost so many loved ones in the last conflict. As they sit at the table to break their fasts their thoughts are with those who are not joining them this year. Mothers who have lost their sons and daughters, children who have lost their fathers.

Each day after work, I come home and help my family prepare the food for our evening meal. For me, Ramadan is the only time when I am able to have meals with my family. At night we spend time visiting and greeting our relatives and friends. My neighbors are Christians and they often come over to break the fast with us. Ramadan unites us all.

In the evening, the children gather on the streets holding little fawanees – symbolic lights – and some spark small fireworks. They are so happy and enjoy looking at the shops in the bustling markets, even though few of their parents can afford to buy them anything.

But pain, as well as joy, is heightened during this month. Asma is a 14-year-old girl I met a couple of months after the war. She lost her father in the conflict and her feelings this Ramadan are a mixture of longing and pain as he is not alive to share the month with her. When I spoke to her two days ago she told me that she still cries whenever she thinks of him and when she remembers how they would all sit down together to share the iftar meal last Ramadan.

The start of Ramadan also coincides with the start of the new school year but thousands of students in Gaza are unable to access quality education. The conflict damaged and destroyed many schools so the number of students in each classroom has more than doubled, despite being already overcrowded.

Months after the last Gaza conflict, there are still many thousands of people who are suffering as a result – people who were injured, paralyzed and who lost their limbs. The hospitals I visit are struggling to cope with lack of medicine and equipment, and their wards are in urgent need of repair so they can adequately treat their patients.

Islamic Relief is trying to meet some of these challenges and more. Islamic Relief-Palestine has already repaired many schools, allowing hundreds of students to resume their studies. IR-Palestine is also running and expanding the only artificial limbs center in Gaza. Many hospitals and health centers have been repaired and IR-Palestine is continuing to supply equipment, machines and medicine.

This Ramadan, I am helping Islamic Relief [Palestine] distribute food parcels to around 10,000 of the poorest families in Gaza. Each family receives enough food to last them for the whole of the month including staple foods such as rice, sugar, beans, pasta and oil. By the end of the first week of Ramadan the first round of distributions will be done. I hope that the parcels make some difference to the hardships faced by so many Palestinian families.

In Gaza, the demand is high and the need is huge but I feel happy that we are moving forward and helping create a better situation for the people here. The support of kind-hearted people from around the world means that we can help ease the pain of the people of Gaza this Ramadan.