Every night around 6:30, the cars begin pulling into the parking lot of a Columbia Heights nonprofit. The folks inside are Muslims checking out a new Ramadan charity project spurred by the coronavirus: iftar boxes to-go.
With mosques closed to avoid the spread of COVID-19, the meals they traditionally served after Muslims broke their daily fasts during Ramadan also ended. These meals, called iftars, are particularly important to lower-income families and to seniors, who appreciated the community and camaraderie of a shared meal.
A small group of Muslim nonprofits are trying to fill this gap by providing boxes of food so that people can prepare their own meals, and a handful are offering hot meals. The iftar boxes offered at Columbia Heights are unusual because they are free drive-up meals, every night of Ramadan, and are the first project of Shabaz Hussain Charities.
“We’re serving about 150 people tonight,” project founder Kausar Hussain said last week as the first cars pulled up. “By the end of the Ramadan, we’ll have served at least 3,500 meals. It’s been going well.”
The folks pulling up included a single man, a mom with a car full of kids and people picking up a few extra meals for elderly friends and neighbors. Volunteers handed off boxed meals and struck up friendly conversations.
“It’s a good idea,” said A.J. Jama, who drove in Thursday night with a friend to pick up several boxes for his elderly neighbors in Minneapolis. “The food is good. There are good people serving it. And it helps older people who can’t drive.”
These iftar meals represent a silver lining of the coronavirus health risks, namely that Muslim communities are working together in new ways to deal with the repercussions of Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home orders.
Hussain, for example, had created a foundation named after her son, Shabaz Hussain, who died unexpectedly in 2014 while in medical school. She lacked a clear direction for the foundation until the coronavirus forced the closure of every mosque in Minnesota.
“I was looking for a place to make a difference, and then COVID-19 happened,” said Hussain, former president of the Islamic Center of Minnesota in Fridley.
A group of young professionals also sprang into action to fill the void during Ramadan, launching a group called Khidma. They began by collaborating with several human service groups with a goal to deliver up to 1,000 meals a day to some of the most vulnerable.
“What’s beautiful about this is all the different efforts coming together,” said Mahir Musani, one of the Khidma’s founders.
Building Blocks of Islam, a Columbia Heights nonprofit that typically offers monthly free food delivery to several locations, now is working with the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority to deliver free food boxes to entire buildings. By the end of the month, it will have delivered nearly 1,000 meals on weekend deliveries to both Muslim and non-Muslim residents, said Nabi Naser, social service coordinator for Building Blocks.
Meanwhile the Islamic Center of Minnesota has a project allowing supporters to donate money for iftar boxes it distributes to those in need, and mosques such as An-Nur in north Minneapolis have stepped up food distribution dramatically since the coronavirus restrictions.
But being able to drive up for nutritious meals to go has been a welcome gift to those who stopped by Hussain’s project this week. She and a crew of regular volunteers meet daily at 5:30 p.m. in a basement of a nonprofit in Columbia Heights, when a friend from Creative Catering and Events drops off the large trays of food.
A recent delivery included dates, the traditional food that breaks the Ramadan fast, naan flatbread, sweet and sour chicken, Mongolian beef, rice and vegetables. The women volunteers, wearing masks and gloves and standing 6 feet apart, packaged the meals into 150 boxes.
By 6:30 p.m. they had carried 30 meals to the parking lot for delivery to a group of regular clients, either handing them off through car windows or tucking them into car trunks.
“Assalaam-Alaikum,” said one of the volunteers approaching a car, a phrase that means “peace be with you” in Arabic. “How are you? For how many people?”
Doa Mohammed arrived early with a friend last week to pick up meals for their families.
“We love to eat together in the mosque,” Mohammed said. “Now we have no other choice. I come here every day.”
Within a half-hour, the volunteers had given out all of the meals. Hussain and the other volunteers paused, reflecting on nearly three weeks of orchestrating this ritual.
“After you’ve done this work, it feels satisfying,” said Hussain. “It’s helped people. And it is an honor to my son.”