A software engineer combats America’s hunger crisis
Zamir Hassan’s story of combating hunger started in 2000 when he chaperoned children from his son’s school to a soup kitchen in a wealthy neighborhood in New Jersey, close to his house. On that day, he and the other volunteers fed more than two hundred people. “There are hungry people around me, and I don’t even know that they are here. As a Muslim, I am not supposed to go to bed if my neighbor is hungry. I started reflecting on that, what kind of Muslim I am?!” said Hassan, the founder of Muslims Against Hunger, in a hotel room in Washington D.C., via Skype interview.
Hassan is a retired software engineer who grew up in Pakistan and moved to the U.S. in 1973. He studied at Cornell University, lived in New York, and he currently lives in New Jersey. “I was in IT [Information Technology] before there was IT. So, I had a good life, as I did well financially,” said Hassan with a smile in retrospect. Since the soup kitchen day, he has dedicated his life to countering hunger in the U.S.
Hassan said that the name “soup kitchen” was historically formed when a Christian person asked everybody to bring food for charity. Everybody brought different dishes. To serve everybody equally, he decided to cook all the food together in a big pot and to serve it as soup. Similarly, the food choices caused a dilemma when Hassan and his friends decided to make a soup kitchen at their mosque. His friends proposed cooking pizza, spaghetti, and Italian food. Hassan objected to that idea because at their houses they eat tandoori chicken, samosa, baklava, and other oriental dishes. He told them that Muslims should share from food that they themselves eat at their houses. He assured them in a firm voice, “As a Muslim, I am supposed to feed people from my own plate. We practice our religion, but we don’t live it. To live it every day, we feed people from what we eat”. Now, their soup kitchen serves various cuisines depending on what the volunteer cooks eat at their houses.
Even though charity is a pillar of Islam, the shortage of volunteers to help in the soup kitchen always challenges Hassan. Hence, he used to trick his friends by inviting them over to his house. After they arrived, he would ask them to come with him on an urgent, short trip. To their surprise, he would drive them to the soup kitchen to cook and serve. When they finished volunteering, he drove them back to his home for an oriental dinner. The experience of volunteering at the soup kitchen usually enraptured his friends; hence, they would ask him to invite them again to help. “My goal is to engage Muslims in their communities. I want to change their mindset. They have to live their religion, not only practicing it,” said Hassan. His position is that Islam is not merely about rituals and building mosques but about daily charity – similar to the Muslim’s five daily prayers. He based his opinion on the continuous pairing of the prayer with charity in the Quran. Therefore, he founded various programs to fight hunger.
In 2011, Hassan started the “Hunger Van” program, a mobile version of the soup kitchen. The program is designed to reach the needy instead of waiting for them to come to the soup kitchen. Accordingly, the local volunteers register on the Hunger Van website, and Hassan drives the van to them where he teaches them how to prepare his sandwiches. Hassan makes two types of sandwiches which he calls honey bee sandwich and peace sandwich.
On the honey bee sandwich he spreads honey on one bread slice, with a cinnamon sprinkle, and peanut butter on the other slice, and in between is a sliced banana. While the peace sandwich is hummus on the two slices with salad in between. In winter, he and the volunteers make both sandwiches, but in summer, they make the honey bee only because hummus goes bad fast. Then, they drive the van to the local areas where the volunteers know that there are homeless people, and they hand them the sandwiches. “Last year, we distributed 30,000 meals. A hundred and fifty meals came from Non-Muslims: churches, synagogues, and Hindu temples. In 2016, we participated in 9/11 event and sponsored making 500,000 meals on the day of 9/11,” added Hassan.
Because other religions stepped up, Hassan expanded Muslims Against Hunger and initiated Faith Against Hunger, an interfaith program for combating hunger. “Hunger has no religion,” he said. He criticized how some Muslims were reluctant to collaborate with other religions. He spreads the interfaith message not only with food; last year, a Hindu Sunday School in New Jersey invited him to teach a class about charity. In addition to the paucity of the volunteers, he struggles with the funding and endures difficulties created by politics.
For instance, on day following the Paris attacks, 16th November 2015, Hassan had a Hunger Van event in Boston with some local volunteers. One of the homeless people shouted at a veiled lady who was volunteering, questioning her if there was poison in the sandwiches. As she was a psychiatrist, she laughed despite her surprise and engaged him in a conversation. She allayed his fears by replying that she could take a bite from the sandwich, which convinced him to try the sandwiches. After few minutes, the incident was repeated with another homeless person who, after calming down, asked about the origins of the sandwiches. Hence, they decided to name the hummus sandwich as the Peace Sandwich as both the Arabs and the Jews claim that that hummus is theirs, but they do not fight over it.
On the other hand, Tarek Sharaf, a Muslim who volunteers with Hassan, said that he has never experienced any negative situations similar to the one in Boston. On the contrary, he has always experienced appreciation and thankfulness. Sharaf also organizes a soup kitchen at his local mosque on a monthly basis. “Brother Zamir does amazing work,” he said. “I think that this what Muslims need, especially, nowadays considering the current environment.” Sharaf bolsters Hassan’s perspective about practicing the religion’s beliefs through action instead of preaching, especially for young Muslims who have shown a commitment to community service, “They really enjoy making a difference,” he said. “I always remind them [young Muslims] that the Prophet had a daily soup kitchen feeding 70 poor people every day.” He added that Muslims Against Hunger was an innovative, unique project when it started, but now there are myriad of projects similar to it.
For instance, Sharaf volunteers at a Pious Projects America Organization, a nonprofit charitable organization that links projects with donors in the U.S. and Canada. Pious Projects of America mission as stated on its website, “ [it] created a way for people to take part in humanitarian charitable projects from all over the world. It partnered up with the best charitable organizations and developed a crowdfunding platform for people to donate to as many causes that they feel are important all under one place.” In December, they handed the homeless people in New Jersey a “winter kit” containing a pair of gloves, a blanket, a pair of socks, a hat, and a snack. Alas in the U.S., the homelessness, hunger, and poverty rates are high even though there are an enormous number of such projects.
According to Do Something Organization, fifty-four million people suffer hunger in the U.S. The organization states that 40 percent of food is thrown out in the U.S. every year.[i] Hassan defines hunger similarly to the United States Department of Agriculture definition of hunger or food insecurity as “the lack of access, at times, to enough food for all household members”.[ii]
To continue his advocacy efforts, Hassan travels across the United States with his Hunger Van to teach people how to set up a soup kitchen. He wishes to establish a soup kitchen at every mosque, and for every Muslim to practice charity by feeding others on a daily basis. While tapping his fingers on the table, he concluded, “It is about time that we walk the talk. Stop talking. Walk the talk.”
About the author:
Engy Fouda is an author, freelance engineer and journalist. Pursuing master’s degree in journalism at the Harvard Extension School and the Team Lead for Momken Group (Engineering for the Blind), Egypt Scholars Inc. I live in NY and from Egypt.