Source: AboutIslam, June 12, 2016
LONDON – Every night during the holy month of Ramadan, Omar Salha and his fellow Muslim volunteers roll out banquet paper in perfect rows in the middle of London, preparing free iftar meals to people of all faiths.
“In 2011 when we started, we had only a [shopping] trolley with a handful of foods donated to us,” recalls 28-year-old Salha from London, a postgraduate student at the School of Oriental and African Studies, Buzz Feed news reported on Saturday, June 11.
“It wasn’t healthy at all – we only had things we could get our hands on. Most of the stuff was [from] the supermarkets. Around 10 to 15 of us would go and buy pizzas, crisps, tea, coffee, water, and dates – you know, the simple stuff.”
Salha is the founder of Ramadan Tent, a grassroots crowd-funded project that has grown rapidly, with tents pitched in seven cities across the globe including Manchester, London, and Plymouth in the UK, Istanbul in Turkey, Ndola in Zambia, and Toronto and Portland in Canada.
Five years after launching the project, around 400 volunteers have signed up to help, while over 300 guests now turn up in London’s Malet Street Gardens each night.
“All that’s needed is a tent, a generator, banquet rolls, plates, bin bags, patient volunteers, food parcels, funding, T-shirts for volunteers, and a PA system. And you need desserts,” Salha said.
“It’s a simple concept and in Muslim-majority countries it’s very normal during Ramadan to have these open tents where people can come and collect free food.”
The idea of Ramadan Tent came after Salha saw some of the difficulties and challenges international students faced during Ramadan in a large city such as London, away from the warmth of their own families and communities.
“I wanted to embody that spirit here in London where there was a space – an alternative space so to speak, a third space – where you can invite people from all faiths, all backgrounds to come and learn and to connect with their Muslim neighbors,” he said.
“But it’s also for Muslims to reach out to their local community, and not just the Muslim community, but with communities in general.”
Moreover, the anti-Muslim rhetoric in the public sphere was another factor.
“I wouldn’t say it was a reaction, as we should be doing this irrespective of the climate,” Salha, who is of Lebanese-Turkish heritage added.
“But we can’t be naive and not acknowledge the climate that we’re living in, and it’s important to say that despite the media onslaught there’s nothing to be afraid about – please come and have a look. We’re not forcing people to come; the doors are open and it’s an open-door policy for everyone.”
Hosting iftars over the past five years, some encounters proved Salha was going in the right way.
He recalled an encounter with a group of Polish men who were on a night out. “We invited them in and said there was free food, and they said, ‘We haven’t got anything else to do’ and they came and sat with us,” Salha said.
“When they saw the call to prayer being made and saw us praying, I sat with a couple of them. It was very interesting to hear what they had to say: ‘Oh Muslims are pretty cool, you’re fun, you’re laughing, and before I came I thought all Muslims are terrorists.’ It’s funny when you hear these comments and think, In 2016, really? So it only gives us the impetus to do more and to carry on with this project.”
Moreover, there have been some challenges along the way.
“It’s nothing to shy away from. On some evenings we have run out of food – there were too many people so we made an announcement and said, ‘Can you please share a food parcel with your neighbor?’ If people are upset then they’ve missed the point. That’s the whole point of Ramadan – to share and care and be generous.”
One evening the generator for the lighting failed. “But that evening probably proved to be the most memorable night ever,” Salha reminisced.
“I still have people telling me that that’s one of their best nights, where people used the light from their phones’ screens, and put flashlights under bottles so there was a lantern-esque feel around the tent.”
Help was also coming from everywhere without planning.
One time, an elderly couple walked into Malet Street Gardens calling out Salha’s name.
“I didn’t know who they were. They said they were from Kuwait and here for a short period of time,” he said.
“They said they heard about us on Kuwait TV and said they called the news channel and reporter who interviewed me, asking for the address. I’m talking about a couple who were over 70 years old. So they arrived and they had an envelope and said: ‘This is for you and we want this to go towards the project.’ And this was at a time when we were thinking where we’d get funds.”
Salha hopes to continue and expand his project, including looking at ways he can help in places affected by the refugee crisis.
“I tell the committee if one person attends, just one person, but we made that person feel welcome and fed them, that’s a success for me,” he said.
“But if one person came and felt neglected then that’s a failure despite us serving 300 people.”