BY NANCY DAHLBERG
The holy month of Ramadan that begins Saturday is a time for Muslims to reconnect spiritually, through daily fasting, intense prayer, self-reflection and charity.
But for organizations, projects and services led by Muslim women in South Florida, helping those in need in their own community and well beyond is a year-round labor of love. These women are delivering food boxes to the hungry, sheltering domestic violence victims, collecting toys for children in distress, helping new refugees get settled and hosting events to inspire the next generation to give back.
Sahar Shaikh is part of the Muslim Women’s Organization of South Florida, a community service group that is just a few years old but has more than 250 active members. The organization recently held a GEMS (Genuinely Empowered Muslim Sisters) event that was all about empowering women to serve their community and attracted 300.
“It’s by women, for women. Everyone is trying to do their part to help the community,” said Shaikh. “This is our way of engaging — it’s through community service.”
With Ramadan beginning on Saturday, MWO will partner with Project Downtown, another Muslim organization, to feed the homeless along Broward Boulevard. Throughout the month, MWO collects new toys, gift cards and books that will be wrapped and delivered to poor or ailing children when Ramadan ends in a month. Last year, 650 families received toys.
MWO calls these events its Rush for Rewards campaign, because the belief is any good deed during Ramadan is 10 to 100 times more rewarding. “We want our children and families to do as much as we can during Ramadan, and the hope is the habits we create in those 30 days will continue throughout the year,” said Shaikh, who worked as a social worker for 20 years but quit last fall to help recently arrived Syrian refugees to achieve self-sufficiency.
Tehsin Siddiqui is also on the front lines of giving back, helping to run a shelter for victims of domestic violence. Some women have endured years of domestic violence, but have to wage the fight of their lives to retain custody of their children. Others have returned from a trip to their homeland to find no husband and no house or were thrown out on the street in the middle of the night. One woman’s husband even left her while she was giving birth.
They all found their way, some way, to the NUR Center, which was founded in 2010.
“The NUR Center came about because we need dignified housing for these women … a safe, comfortable culturally sensitive place where services could be provided to them,” said Siddiqui, the volunteer president of the center. These include help with applying for community resources, health checkups, resume writing and job hunting, legal aid, and counseling. “They can settle in a little bit and get their thoughts together and then decide for themselves for the first time what they want to do with their life.”
The NUR Center in the Miami area – the exact location is not disclosed – houses women for three months, and longer on a case- by-case basis. “Women do not have to worry about where they will sleep, or the rent or the food. All of that is provided for her and her children,” Siddiqui said.
The NUR Center, the only center in Florida that caters to the needs of the Muslim population, has helped more than 400 women and provided referrals to hundreds more calling from all over the country.
A key focus of the center is helping domestic violence victims achieve economic independence. That might mean attending classes to become a security officer or getting certifications to work in child care. Some will also need subsidized child-care while they work; others need financial assistance with tuition for their own education.
“They will realize ‘I can be the breadwinner of my family and I will go on,’” said Siddiqui, who moved to South Florida from Pakistan with her family when she was in high school. She is a full-time physician’s assistant and active in leadership and charitable organizations.
In Broward County, Kauser Haroon has been running the Islamic Foundation of South Florida’s food pantry for nearly a decade as a volunteer. Every month she and a group of Muslim women pack and deliver food boxes of staples and fresh meats and provide it to mosques and organizations that help needy families. The food pantry services more than 170 families every month. For Ramadan, the pantry will be delivering more than 500 boxes, Haroon said.
Into a typical box goes cereal, boxed milk, tea, jam, soups, peanut butter, canned fruits and vegetables, rice, lentils, oil and other staples. Clients are also provided four or five pounds of chicken or other meats.
Haroon said the pantry was started by Saleha Baig, who arrived from the Washington D.C. area and was surprised there was not a food pantry to feed the hungry. “So she started it with about $200, helping about six families,” said Haroon, who took over the pantry a couple of years later.
Haroon is reminded daily how much the service is needed. Last month she was on vacation and ordered the chicken from the supplier in advance. Her volunteers got busy and forgot to pick up the chicken. One of the clients who did not get the meat called and asked if the pantry could double the next order because it is the only meat they eat for a whole month.
“I never realized there was so many people hungry and going without,” she said. “This is what keeps me going.”
Yasemin Saib chairs the MWO of South Florida. One of the group’s newer projects, with its partner Project MotherPath, is the Syrian Supper Club of South Florida, in which families volunteer to host dinners at their homes and two recently arrived Syrian women cook traditional Syrian meals. After the meal, they tell the story of their long and often painful journey. They take home a donation from the cost of the dinner tickets.
To help ensure that charity and other traditions are continued, the women are focused on the next generation. Next month, for instance, more than 125 girls in middle and high school will participate in an overnight girls night at a Miami Gardens mosque, where they will say prayers but also learn about community service, ethics and “putting your traditions into practice to better your community,” said Aisha Subhani, who will lead some of the talks.
The theme of the night: Living with Purpose.
Subhani, born in Coral Gables of Pakistani heritage, is an ER physician and does inspirational speaking in her spare time, often spreading her message at Miami Dade College’s Islam Today program and through COSMOS, a coalition of Muslim organizations.
“We talk about avenues to mobilize the community members to engage. With the political climate as it is, it is really important to engage,” said Subhani. “They have lot of questions, they really want to connect. This opens the door to do this. What we see is people building bridges.”
Shaikh agrees. “Caring about others is the key to happiness. Hopefully with these programs that we do, people will understand what Islam is truly about.”