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On An MLK Day Of Service, Muslims Reach Out To Homeless Folks As Storm Bears Down

Christopher Connelly
Volunteers with Islamic Relief USA in Dallas hand out hygiene kits to people who are homeless.

On Martin Luther King's birthday, with a winter storm looming, volunteers at a mosque in Richardson spent a day of service assembling and handing out hygiene kits for homeless folks.

It was one of many volunteer efforts to remember King across North Texas and the country.

At the Muslim American Society Islamic Center of Dallas, which is based in Richardson, the volunteers formed an assembly line to fill blue tote bags emblazoned with the logo of Islamic Relief USA. They dropped in a reusable water bottle and a big Ziploc full of toiletries – soap, body wash, shampoo and conditioner, lotion, toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant and feminine hygiene products.

Islamic Relief USA is a charity that does disaster relief work around the world. It also organizes service projects to help lower income and homeless Americans.

Credit Christopher Connelly / KERA News
Volunteers pack supplies into tote bags at the MAS Islamic Center in Richardson.

“Nearly every single faith in the world preaches some type of community involvement [and] support,” says Abdullah Shawky, who works for the charity and organized the day’s activity, “because if your neighbor is hungry or cold or sick, then society as a whole is cold, hungry and sick.”

Rami Kawas, the mosque’s youth director, said he wants people to honor King’s legacy in two ways: by taking action to serve society’s neediest members and by keeping alive the struggle for civil rights that King represents.

“As Muslims in America, there’s definitely a lot of aggression and ignorance about our faith,” he said. “Every minority group, including Muslims in this country, have to stand up for the principles that our faith embodies. We should be on the forefront against persecution, against oppression and against racism.”

Today, the group had supplies for 100 bags. It’s a small contribution, Shawky said, but with the cold weather coming, services for homeless people are stretched thin. With way more volunteers than expected, the bags were packed in short order. They’re loaded into cars and it was off to Dallas.

After a quick stop at another mosque along the way to pick up food and socks and other sundry items, the group of volunteers in blue shirts hit the streets just east of downtown.

Credit Christopher Connelly / KERA News
A volunteer collect ssome of the 100 bags of toiletries and reusable water bottles they would eventually hand out.

Zainah Asfoor grabbed an armful of the bags and started handing them out. The English teacher volunteers often with Islamic Relief. She says it’s important to cultivate a sense of service and justice in daily life.

“You may not be in government or you may not be able to change the laws or make a really huge impact that influences an international community. But at least by doing the small things, you can make change — small change, small impact — in your own community. And that’s what we’re doing today.”

It didn’t take long before all the hygiene kits and other foods and supplies were handed out. Howard Pope, who sleeps in his car most nights, said the supplies are helpful.

“Right now, I’m low on deodorant, so I’m glad they came. I’m not trying to be funky," he said with a laugh. "Even though I’m homeless doesn’t mean I have to be funky."

Pope said that with the cold weather coming, he’d probably spend the night in a shelter.

“I am worried about it because I am outside, but they’ve got places that are going to open up tonight. And I’m going to go in there,” he said. “I’ve got enough blankets and stuff but I’m not going to try that tonight. It’s supposed to be a bad night tonight.”

With the bags delivered, the group packed it in and headed home. As they pulled away, another woman pulled up in her car. She’s made sandwiches to hand out; another North Texan taking the day as a chance to serve others.

Christopher Connelly is a reporter covering issues related to financial instability and poverty for KERA’s One Crisis Away series. In 2015, he joined KERA to report on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. From Fort Worth, he also focused on politics and criminal justice stories.