For a group of Brooklyn Muslims, the holy month of Ramadan is a blur: They fast during daylight hours, pray repeatedly, and use every bit of their remaining energy to feed the hungry.
And not just for their fellow Muslims. Every night during Ramadan, they decamp to Manhattan’s Herald Square, where in the shadow of Macy’s they provide food for as many as 200 people.
“While we are feeding them, we are also feeding our souls at the same time,” said Mohammed Bahe, director of the Muslim Community Center in Bay Ridge.
And they are filling a void.
During Ramadan, Bahe says, the mosque is usually “a madhouse” in the evenings — at least 100 people cleaning, putting tables away. Men reading the Quran and drinking coffee. Kids running around.
But this year, the gatherings have been forbidden as health risks. The mosque, or masjid, “feels empty and the lack of the community and congregation makes me sad,” he says.
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So Muslims Giving Back, a group which operates out of his center, has redoubled its efforts to feed the hungry. Since 2014, their Need2Feed project has brought food to Herald Square two nights a week; during this viral Ramadan, they decided to do it every night.
“If you want doors to open, do good,” said Mohammed Widdi, coordinator of Muslims Giving Back. “Every single time I donate my time, Allah, would throw me another blessing. It’s ingrained in us.”
The volunteers’ days start with prayers before 5 A.M., and a pre-dawn meal. By 9 A.M., donations start to come in; they go out to buy food and other goods.
Some of the food comes from donors like Hamza Deib, the 28-year-old owner of Brooklyn’s Taheni Mediterranean Grill. The halal food he donates is the same that he serves in his restaurant — on one night, rice, chicken, mixed vegetables and falafel for vegetarians.
The volunteers return to the mosque to pack the food into containers — while fasting themselves.
“It really makes me think about all the people who refrain from food and water simply because they can’t afford to eat,” said Dania Darwish, 27, director of the Asiyah Women’s Center and a volunteer.
They sometimes make grocery runs for the needy or sick. They then provide free meals mostly to local Muslims who are in need.
Then, back to the mosque to prep for the next round. Volunteers pause to pray to end their daily fast, and then sit on the floor of the prayer hall to eat together. After a night prayer, they start the half-hour drive to Manhattan, where the hungry wait in line for their plates.
The volunteers are celebrating their holy month, putting their faith into action. But in these dark streets, at this moment, they are New Yorkers helping other New Yorkers; they wear red vests displaying the motto, “One creator. One planet. One family.”
Each recipient is greeted warmly. “Thank you for coming,” they are told.
“This is wonderful … it’s the whole world,” says Jose Ruiz, a 58-year-old man who said he has been homeless for two years. A Catholic, he cares little about Ramadan. What’s important, he says, is that these visitors “do it from the heart.”
Usually, the delivery ends around midnight; if it’s raining, it will take longer, because the volunteers look for homeless people in the bowels of Penn Station. They return to Bay Ridge for a celebratory fruit smoothie and disperse until the day’s prayers begin, before 5.
Hamza Deib must make the long drive to his home in Islip, on Long Island. But it’s all worthwhile, he says: He was desperate to find a way to make this Ramadan special, amid the pandemic. And in the food line on 34th Street, he has done just that.
“With the blessing of this act, this Ramadan means more to me … than any Ramadan in my life,” he says.