By the time Mohammed Basheer and Faheem Khan rounded the corner onto Third Avenue from Yesler Way in their Mercy on Wheels van, a line of people had already formed along the sidewalk. Homeless and hungry, the men and women in line were waiting for the bright yellow vehicle to bring hot, fresh food.
The Mercy on Wheels program is run by local Muslim volunteers who are a part of the much larger Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA). The organization looks to create a place for Islam in North America by providing education, social services and programs catered to Muslim women, young men and children. The Seattle branch was created in 2015.
Basheer and Khan’s group is part of ICNA’s hunger-prevention program. Three of every four weekends, volunteers go to tent cities and shelters to distribute food, water and supplies. The program began in April, and its schedule is already packed.
“We have our calendar booked for the entire year,” said Khan, who leads ICNA operations in Seattle. “We want to reach out to the moving population who don’t really have a place to stay and are probably in need of either a hygiene pack or food.”
That morning they picked up about 25 veggie and cheese pizzas from Costco; often they pick up chicken, salad and rice from Little India, a restaurant that gives them a discount. All of the food is paid for through donations.
Although the pizza is a favorite, the Indian food is unforgettable by some. When Basheer, one of the lead volunteers for Mercy on Wheels, appears before the line, he runs into one of the regulars who asks somewhat disappointedly, “Where’s the chicken, man?”
Third and Yesler is their spot every Saturday, which allows people to rely on them. Volunteers arrive with pizza, hygiene packs (some with feminine products and others with basics such as toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant and more) and water bottles. As Khan opens up the back of the truck and another volunteer prepares to hand out food, people catch a whiff of what’s cooking and the line grows.
Although they have return recipients, there are also many who wonder what the group is doing. Once they find out, they have no hesitation in expressing gratitude.
“It is a blessing,” one woman said when Khan asks what she thinks of Mercy on Wheels. “I am out of a lot of these supplies that, without you guys, I would have not today.”
Khan beams when people express gratitude for Mercy on Wheels, as it is the fulfilling result of his goal to be giving back to the community. Both Khan and Basheer emigrated from India, and saw it as their duty to be active members of their new Seattle community, which is rooted in their Muslim identity.
“I’m actually accountable in Islam,” Khan said. “It is necessary as a Muslim, as the prophet taught us and as in the Quran, to spend what he has blessed us with. And we are accountable for every blessing we have had and how we use it and how we spend it.”
This can be physical strength, money or other blessings that are passed on. In the case of ICNA, there are a variety of ways that this manifests itself. Mercy on Wheels is not the only relief program ICNA offers. There are drives once a year for schools where refugee children attend, and ideally there will soon be a winter clothing drive that Khan hopes will deliver clothing and supplies in the same way the van delivers goods for Mercy on Wheels.
There are a variety of ways people can participate, and with new volunteers joining the program each week, there is no shortage of growth. So far, everything seems to be running smoothly.
Khan and Basheer are star examples of community members trying to make a difference, using what they stand for as a tool to help others.
Arriving in a new country is overwhelming and can take a large amount of time for adjustment, but both managed to find ways to assist those around them nearly immediately.
Just as the Seattle homeless population is isolated, Muslims have found themselves in isolation nationwide. Through an unexpected union, these two groups find an alliance in mutual respect and care.
Wait there's more. Check out articles in the full July 26 issue.
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