When Nouman Ali Khan, founder and professor at Bayyinah Institute, is not teaching intensive Arabic classes, engaging the youth in various masajid in Texas, touring the country promoting his program, or recording Qur’an Weekly videos and Ramadan reminders, he goes grocery shopping for poor indigenous Muslim families in Mexico. Sound bizarre? Read on.
It all began in May at the 38th Annual ICNA-MAS Convention 2013 held in the Hartford Convention Center in Connecticut from the 26th to 28th, where Khan was a guest speaker. While walking through the Marriott Hotel adjacent to the center, he was approached by WhyIslam NJ Administrative Assistant and National Spanish Outreach Coordinator, Nahela Morales, who handed him a flyer about her upcoming trip to Mexico to deliver Islamic material.
It was the second time Morales would be traveling to her native land for the same purpose, but this time contributions from sponsors and individuals had more than doubled. She also planned to visit five different Islamic centers in five states within Mexico. All she needed was one more boost to help her reach her $15,000 goal, an amount that her and Imam Isa Rojas from Al Hikmah Islamic Center in Mexico City estimated they would need to cover the cost of renovating a damaged mosque in the indigenous community of San Cristobal de las Casas, in the state of Chiapas.
This motivated her to approach Khan, among other Muslim leaders, and his response was overwhelmingly positive. He asked how much funding Morales needed and after hearing the amount, he told her, “It’s yours.” Morales’ jaw dropped, but his promise to fulfill the financial needs was not the most shocking. He added, “I want to go, too.”
“I was speechless,” Morales recalls, “But I felt that my prayers were being answered. He (Khan) was the best suited to raise awareness about this cause.”
His wife, Sofia Sharieff, joined him in his excitement to visit the US’s southern neighbor. When her husband mentioned the plans, she was immediately on board. “I have always wanted to visit Mexico,” the Texas resident says, “It was a different country but not too far. I love to meet new people and see new communities. I have to admit that I have not been "actively" giving dawah and I thought this was a good opportunity to start....and it was.” Weeks later Khan presented Morales with a check for $15,000 and made arrangements to visit the needy Muslims in Chiapas for two days despite his busy schedule and numerous speaking engagements.
By the time Morales was ready to leave for Mexico on June 25th, she had raised almost $30,000 in contributions through social networking, local and online fundraising, and with the support of WhyIslam. Funds came from all over the US, as well as Islamic clothing donations, books, prayer rugs, and other necessities from as far as Washington State. Maryland residents from the community of Dar-us-Salaam in College Park and the Islamic Community Center of Laurel participated by donating clothing and sponsoring Ramadan iftars for their Mexican brothers and sisters.
With the inconceivable task of touring five Islamic communities, an average of five hours distance apart, this effort also required manpower. This is where the team of dedicated volunteers came in. From New York, two Muslim men, one Pakistani and one Mexican, arranged with Morales to fly to Mexico to assist after hearing about the trip at the ICNA conference, as well. From New Jersey, two young sisters who attend the same mosque as Morales, one Egyptian, and the other Tunisian and Morales took off on their connecting flight to Houston where they were met by another female volunteer from Maryland, Malak Soussi, a Moroccan who is fluent in Spanish. From Houston, the four flew to Mexico City, where they were picked up by members of the Al Hikmah Islamic Center and joined by the brothers from New York.
After touring the capital, the crew travelled to Tequesquitengo, Morales, to hear lectures on sustainable ecological projects and reforestation by Brother Omar Weston and to participate in a tree-planting event. Students from local universities were in attendance and asked questions about Islam as Morales and volunteers handed out WhyIslam brochures in Spanish.
The team, now joined by Imam Isa Rojas and other Muslims from Mexico City, moved on taking a flight to the state of Chiapas, where they were scheduled to visit the Muslims of Masjid Al Kauthar in San Cristobal de las Casas; an indigenous Mayan community where Islam has been growing steadily since the early 90’s. The mosque, which has a tin rooftop and no wudu area, was badly damaged and needed repairs, which would be funded by the donations received by Morales.
The greater part of the Mexican outreach tour would be spent in Chiapas, from July 1st to the 11th, coordinating with the architects and engineers who would be spearheading the mosque renovation, serving the needs of the impoverished Muslims in the area, buying and distributing groceries and school supplies for Muslim families and their children, handing out Islamic clothing and books, painting and preparing the mosque for Ramadan, organizing lectures and classes, and feeding the fasting during the first few days of the Holy month.
“We planned on using the majority of the donations to cover the cost of renovating Masjid Kauthar,” explains Morales, “But once we arrived and saw the conditions in which the people were living, we decided that we should buy them food also in order to cover their needs for Ramadan and their Eid celebration; we also gave zakat to those who needed it most.”
It was during this time that Khan and Sharieff arrived. Early morning on July 3rd, Khan and his wife, Morales, and Imam Isa Rojas went to a local market in San Cristobal de las Casas and shopped for 14 indigenous families, all from Masjid Kauthar. Most of these families live in very modest homes, built out of wooden planks, sheets, and tin roofs on bare, dirt floors. When individuals were asked what they needed from the grocery store, they only asked for five items: oatmeal, sugar, salt, soap, and rice.
Sharieff was excited to do as much as she could in the short amount of time they had. She said, “We had only one day to spend with the Muslim community. In that one day, we went grocery shopping for 14 families and distributed the food, we handed out new clothes to the community and I got to cook!” She prepared food on a traditional open flame because the mosque does not have a kitchen and neither do most of the worshippers’ homes.
“Nouman made a few videos to promote awareness of the growing community, he had an interview with the local news station, he gave a lecture on unity at the (mosque’s) open house and we had cake....that was a big deal.” Although Khan and his wife only spent one full day in San Cristobal de las Casas, the trip was an eye-opener for them both and also for the other volunteers.
“They don’t need us, we need them,” Khan said about the Muslims in Chiapas after observing how little they have, but yet how happy they are. “We should be grateful for what we have, our houses, cars, clothes and conveniences but we should have gratitude most for being blessed with Islam....it opens up doors and opportunities you would never be able to imagine.” Khan also encourages Muslims in the US to learn other languages and use their talents to help others understand Islam. “Living in America, we should be very conscious of the growing population of Muslims around us. The Latino community is embracing Islam at a rapid rate and we should be ready to welcome them and have resources available to them to further their understanding.”
Soussi, the Moroccan volunteer recently spent a year in Spain in order to perfect her Spanish. Before the summer she never imagined she would be using it in Mexico with other Muslims, but when she heard about Morales’ efforts through her mother, she decided to travel and help. The 20 year old Maryland resident says, “I was really interested in helping people in Mexico and to get closer to Allah, I wanted to grow better as a Muslim and see how much we take for granted even if it meant stepping out of my comfort zone.” Soussi was in Mexico for two weeks, during which she helped paint the Al Kauthar mosque and distribute clothing. “What I learned from visiting the community in Chiapas is that I'm so fortunate and I take so much for granted. Allah has blessed me with so much yet I'm still ungrateful.”
The two volunteers from New York were in Chiapas until July 6th and during their stay, they had soccer uniforms made for all of the men and children of the Al Kauthar Muslim community. There was also a kid’s pre-Ramadan party organized with inflatable play areas, balloons, candy, and games which was open to the whole village. The additional masjid renovations were well underway, as well, with foundations laid out for the new bathrooms and wudu areas for men and women.
After the stay in Chiapas, the tour continued with Morales and Imam Isa Rojas visiting Guadalajara, Jalisco, to distribute Islamic material, teach classes, conduct Q&A sessions, and organize three iftars. They left the community with their Eid festivities prepaid and zakat for needy families. Due to time restrictions, the team was unable to visit the city of Puebla, but they left material in Mexico City which would be picked up and delivered to the Muslims there, as well as any other areas in need.
Volunteers and community leaders met to discuss future plans for more outreach efforts in Mexico. This year’s dawah trip ended July 26th, with Morales’ return to her home in New Jersey. She hopes that the efforts in Mexico can continue with annual trips and more Muslim leaders like Nouman Ali Khan raising awareness of the needs of the Mexican Islamic community. The renovations for Masjid Al Kauthar in San Cristobal de las Casas are ongoing, and WhyIslam and Morales hope to continue fundraising to cover the costs.