This Ramadan, I joined volunteers from Burke United Methodist Church, near my home in Fairfax County, a Washington, DC suburb, to provide hot breakfast for some of the homeless in the county. I wasn’t prepared for what I would see.
I felt sad and scared.
Sad because I live in one of the richest counties in the United States, while according to our sponsors, Fairfax Area Christian Emergency and Transitional Services (FACETS), there are over 1,800 people who are “literally homeless” in our county of about one million people. Of these, 40 percent of the adults are “employed full or part-time”.
And scared, because losing one’s home could happen to anyone, even me.
At first, I thought we would go to shelters, 7-11 parking lots or group houses, where one might expect the homeless to congregate. Actually, we went to rather decent hotels and motels – even a beautiful, newly-built cluster of townhouses.
It was comforting to know that Fairfax County was making a resolute effort to help the homeless. I learned that once it identifies people as “homeless”, the county makes an effort to house them wherever possible, which is why we went to hotels and motels instead of shelters. Fairfax County then works with church groups to feed these people on a regular basis, until they can get back on their feet.
At 6:30 that morning, my high school daughter, who was volunteering with me, and I entered the church’s huge kitchen and began cooking, along with eight or so other people. It was one of the biggest meals I ever participated in. We wrapped tortillas in aluminium foil, marking them, “egg, cheese and sausage”, “egg and cheese” or “only egg”. We then stacked cartons of milk and orange juice and filled brown lunch bags with goodies like candy bars, gum and mints.
We loaded the FACETS van with food, and divided ourselves into groups so that each recipient would be given a plastic bag filled with of a choice of tortilla, milk or juice, and a goodies bag.
I was surprised by the friendliness of some of the people as they selected their meals. They talked about the weather, last night’s mysterious big bang in the neighbourhood and recent football games – they could have been my next-door neighbours chatting on the sidewalk.
Some even talked about how they became homeless. “I just couldn’t pay my apartment’s rent, rented a storage unit for my furniture and came here”, said a Caucasian man. And a Latino-looking woman said in broken English, “They forced us out, they forced us out of our home.”
About half of the people we served that morning were Caucasian, a few were African American and many Latin American, South Asian and Middle Eastern, speaking Spanish, Urdu, Arabic and other languages I didn’t recognise.
But it was the families and children who broke my heart. Mothers, primarily, would come out and ask for meals for four or five people; one asked for seven. A few Latin American women brought fluent English-speaking children, apparently to help in the translation (“Did you say ‘sausage and cheese’ or just ‘cheese’?”). In more than one place the morning cleaning ladies helped in the translation.
Another man in shalwar kameez, the native dress of Pakistan and Afghanistan emerged, checked us out and closed the door. Less than a minute later, a woman in a similar dress, accompanied by a young boy, came out and apparently asked the boy to translate for her. They said they didn’t want anything with pork, so I served them tortillas with “egg and cheese”, which were written on the package.
When I said “salam alaikum”, the Muslim greeting, the woman greeted me back and then said something, probably in Urdu or Pashto, to the boy and he repeated: “She said she didn’t expect a Muslim to be part of this Christian group”.
Following this interaction, one of the volunteers, indirectly inquired whether I was a Muslim. After a short friendly talk, we agreed that being homeless and helping the homeless didn’t know religious, racial and national boundaries.
* Mohammad Ali Salih is a Washington, DC correspondent for London-based Asharq Alawsat, an international Arabic daily newspaper, and other Arabic publications. This article first appeared in Connection Newspapers and was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).