Eid and “Gypsy” Beggars: Muslims Asked to Be Cautious With Donations and Stereotyping

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An investigation by a British media outlet found that some child beggars associated with “gypsy” groups solicited up to $170,000 per year from passersby. Internet photos.


A woman in her 30s in a headscarf hails the worshippers as they leave Eid salah. Feeling a curious mix of guilt and joy, most don’t hesitate in handing over some money. They have cash in their pockets and purses today, expecting to give it as gifts to the children in their own families.

Some have not paid their Sadaqah Fitr [charity due at before Eid Salah] and jump at the chance to give it in person. The woman looks like she is in need, she also knows the right things to say.

From New Orleans to New York, beggars have become a part of the Eid prayers. A set of seven or eight were outside a large East Coast masjid, says Sarah, who was visiting family. Some are visibly Middle Eastern or from the Indian subcontinent, and many are supposedly Romani, often with index cards asking for money.

The worshippers at the Islamic Center of Laurel were also targeted by a group of women and children, who would be dropped of by a man in a white van. They had been coming for years.

In the past the board of ICCL has politely requested that they stop begging and fill a zakat form. They refused and eventually admitted that they were not Muslim. “[This Ramadan] I chased them out,” says Ibrahim Zuberi, Director of Communications at ICCL. He told them that they have to leave immediately or ICCL will call the police say that they are trespassing.

According to a documentary made by the BBC, in the United Kingdom, gangs dress women and children in modest clothes and headscarves, despite not being Muslim. They know that giving to the poor is a religious tenet and that is why they single out ‘wealthy’ Muslims. They target masajid and areas popular with rich tourists from the Gulf States and their minders collect all the funds at the end of the day.

Kimberly Hutchins has encountered some beggars around the DC Metro area. “It burns me up that they're likely just taking advantage of the generosity of certain brothers and sisters at Eid. Last year, a woman followed her into a store and asked her for money (after giving perfect salaam),” she said. Hutchins did not fall for it as her suspicions were raised.

She saw the same woman at the joint PGMA- DUS Eid salah at the Prince George’s Sports & Learning Complex last year, where she begged her for money. “I told her, game's up, you asked me for money a few days ago. Not this time, either,” Hutchins chastised her.

Hutchins says she had a horrible feeling that the woman was working a ‘job’ and could be a part of human trafficking gang. “If I know what I know, and I could be wrong, this is their job, they are sent out by [a] pimp-like man to do this every day and they give him a cut [or] all of what they make begging,” she shares.

Hutchins’ hunch could be correct. Malika Bey Rushdan, Director of ICNA Relief Boston, sent a warning in an email to ICNA donors during Ramadan, ”many of you have seen the Roma women outside your masjids begging for money - this is a network of Romani people (gypsies). They are not in need!! They are dropped off at the masjids and picked back up after the prayers; often by [men] in very nice cars. Beware, they are taking advantage of your generosity.”

Bey-Rushdan suggests people educate themselves about beggars, as many of the women and children are victims of trafficking.  “The best thing to do is contact the authorities,” writes Bey-Rushdan.

Young children in hijab are used to wheedle hearts and then all the money collected is taken away by their minders. The manipulation of using babies and kids on the corner on the occasion of Eid also offends Hutchins, a mother of young children. “Everything about it screams "wrong”. She felt uncomfortable that they find Muslim places of worship and have acquainted themselves enough so that they can "blend".

There are many myths and tropes about Romanis that further complicate matters. Needless to say not all Romanis are criminals or beggars and some are Muslims. They have a horrific history of persecution in Europe; many were enslaved until the mid 1800s in Romania after they left the Punjab region of India as early as the 11th century. More than half a million were murdered by the Nazis during World War II.

Their distrust of governments, that persecuted and forcibly assimilated them, took away their children and sterilized them, forced them to adopt a nomadic lifestyle that is considered unconventional, partly to preserve their heritage. Even though there are roughly one million Romani Americans, many who are non-nomadic, anti-Gypsy laws have been in effect in the United States until 1998.

Historically they have been banned from owning property in the countries they settled in, barred from many professions, and not given the opportunity get an education, because of this they end up in marginal professions.

They are seen as callous trouble-makers who don’t care for their children, leading to severe racial prejudice.  According to writer Isabel Fonseca who spent four years researching Gypsies, ‘Gypsy women, whatever the earnings of their husbands, are ultimately charged with supporting and feeding their children.’ They do not let anyone take care of their children, except family and friends. So to think that all Roma would willingly give up their children to become beggars or worse sell them is simply  dehumanizing them.

‘Gypsy’ kidnappers are also a myth that has been used for centuries to other this oppressed minority.

Many Romani think the term gypsy itself is an ethnic slur and do not wish to be called by it. Their entire race is looked upon as criminal and so they are treated as a ‘lower race’.

Just as there are criminals in every race there may be in the Roma people too. Just like there are people in each community who take advantage of desperate people in their own community so there may be in the Roma community as well.

In general, begging or duping people is a universal phenomenon which cannot be confined to one race.

Locally, in 2012 the panhandling bill became law in the State of Maryland, which requires permits. Seven Maryland counties have banned roadway soliciting: Anne Arundel, Carroll, Charles, Frederick, Harford, Prince George's and Washington.

In Montgomery County, aggressive panhandling is not legal—which involves using verbal or physical threats when seeking donations—but begging is. In an interview with the Gazette, County Executive Ike Leggett said panhandlers often stand in the median strip of county roads — which is allowed under county law — but that many approach drivers by walking into the street, which is not.

In Howard County, permits can be purchased for $100 four times per year, and Baltimore County issues as many as a dozen permits per year at no charge.

In most areas of Virginia, beggars need a permit to verbally request donations. Although some civil liberties organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union think that it is unjust and unconstitutional to require permits, proponents argue that the process helps connects the needy with social services.

Many people wonder if the beggars, Roma or otherwise, are really in need, are doing this as a job or are being forced into panhandling. The best way to make sure your donations get to someone in real need is to give to person to person through trusted community workers, through international organizations or local Muslim charities.