By Janice Tufte, Islamic Civic Engagement Project
Janice Tufte, Muslim consultant and collaborator with the Faith & Family Homelessness Project, has founded six projects addressing poverty that offer simple, replicable solutions to be implemented in communities in order to effectively tackle shared concerns. The Islamic Civic Engagement Project initiated the first Muslim Lobby Day at the Capitol in Olympia, Washington on Martin Luther King Day 2008. This was the first time Muslim organizations had collaborated and been present in Olympia to have their voices heard on affordable housing, health care reform and payday loan regulation (with 19 districts represented in the first year). This MLK Day 2014, you will see hundreds of Muslims advocating with CAIR-WA, the fifth year of their successful organizing and advocating for equal rights for all.
Ummah is the name for the Muslim community. There is only one Ummah, though Muslims are from many walks of life. I am very fortunate, as an American-born individual who embraced Islam, to have had the honor as a guest in the homes of families from around our shared planet. Languages aplenty, words unknown to me are whispered quietly before Jummah Salat, our Friday obligatory prayers. I have feasted on dishes I had never had the pleasure of tasting before, from foods I had never heard of. Muslims so poor they do not have transportation money, yet they will feed and share with you the best of what they have to offer.
Our local Ummah is comprised of Muslims from around the world: persons of all colors, all shapes and sizes, all socio-economic levels. Our Islamic Eids, (religious holidays, two a year) are long-awaited joyous events, and should be enjoyed by everyone. The apex is our obligatory large Eid communal prayers, the women in their new and colorful best clothing, children laughing, full stomachs… yes, an Islamic Eid is a very special day for almost any Muslim.
If you have any wealth, you give before both Eids, with zakhat and/or sadaqa, Islamic forms of tithing. Zakhat is incumbent upon every Muslim, rich or poor. The amount you must give to the needy in the Muslim community is determined by the surplus dollars you have by year’s end. After the fasting month of Ramadan and before our first Eid community prayer, Eid ul Fitr, you must give your zakhat percentage to the needy, desolate, wayfarer and/or homeless in our community. (This actually constitutes a large amount of money distributed to the neediest in our communities in an Islamic form of true trickle-down economics). Eid Ul Adha, the second Eid of every Islamic calendar year is a time when mudds (a measurement of foods), or most often a portion of a sacrificed animal, must be gifted to the struggling members in our community as well as divided with your family.
Still, even with this unique built-in economic system of giving (that some would call similar to socialism as it is mandatory), we have many individuals and families in need in our local Ummah, our Muslim community. We are a young growing group and we have a large refugee population here, representing East Africa, Bosnia, Iraq and other war-torn nations. We pray for food, clean water, housing and job stability for our Ummah, many of whom are struggling daily to care for their family or for themselves. Muslims pray five times daily for sustenance, new opportunities and safety for our families, and our children. Thanking Allah (God) for what we do have is also a large part of our prayer and remembrance, our Dhikr and Duas.
Asalamu Alaikum, the standard greeting among Muslims, is “Peace unto you” in Arabic. Arabic is what unites all Muslims: our five daily prayers are in Arabic, and our prayers are our spiritual food for sustaining us emotionally and mentally through the day. Fasting, especially during Ramadan is to remind the Ummah what sacrifice is all about, how so many people suffer every day. During Ramadan, you are hungry all day, allowed no water, no gum, no imbibing of anything unless you have a medical condition. I have had calls from shelters, schools and medical staff unsure how best to handle youth and adults fasting all day. Yes, some of these fasting families and children are homeless. Youth as young as nine may fast all day, some fast half a day. I ask myself how these children and families have a good dinner if fasting does not end until after 9 p.m. and the Ramadan fast starts at 3 a.m.? Fasting is one of the Five Pillars of Islam and most of the Islamic community considers fasting a major requirement, as it is. How could our community and shelters work together to ensure our unhoused Muslims are able to eat at 3 a.m. and 9 p.m.? This is another hurdle for Muslims without homes, these upcoming years when fasting is required during our longest days of summer, as the Islamic calendar moves back the 10 and 11 days each year.
Experiencing homelessness is all about day–to-day survival –a frustrating confusion of navigating services to meet your family’s needs: where to be and when for this thing or that thing and then go there. Safety, health and wellness are your main priorities. You are in fight or flight mode even if you do not want to be. It shocks me when people say things like, “They seem so nice and they were all smiling, happy and they have nothing!” in reference to the poor or homeless individuals in our communities. I often remind them that a smile is all many of these families have left, and dignity is deserved by all. Modesty in the Muslim community is very important, and when you have no roof over your bed, or are in dire straits couch surfing, privacy is next to non-existent.
Can you imagine experiencing homelessness and not understanding English, American money, or local culture? Picture being a refugee for a day: navigating our homeless systems and going through a form of hell every day just to survive. Then again, can we imagine where the refugees came from and just how bad it was there? Do we truly want to hear their real-life horror stories? What can we do, as an educated English-speaking faith community to help our Ummah and neighbors in need? We need to ask ourselves how we can make a real difference in others’ lives. And we can make a difference. We can advocate on behalf of homeless and the needy, mentor youth or families, we can hire persons needing work, and we can bring people into our homes for a while to help them get back on their feet. We should be Big Brothers and Big Sisters for refugee youth, and we certainly could be a helpful friend to someone of another faith. We can listen. When we listen, we often find that we are moved to make a positive difference.
The Call to Prayer is beautiful – listen sometime.