Zamir Hassan: Organizing for the Homeless

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself professionally as well as educationally?

I work in NJ as an IT and Telecommunications consultant.  I studied at Cornell University in 1973 after coming to America from Karachi, Pakistan where I taught at the University of Karachi.

What made you start the Muslims Against Hunger Project (MAHP)?

I was introduced to a soup kitchen for the very first time in the year 2000 when I went on a school trip with my son.  Surprisingly, this soup kitchen was in one of America’s wealthiest communities where 70% of those coming to the soup kitchen were considered the working poor.  The reality of these working poor was eye opening for me which led me to launch the Muslims Against Hunger Project (MAHP).   After 9-11, my wife and I started small by cooking food and taking it to a nearby soup kitchen.  Slowly I started reaching out to close friends and I reached a point where I started going so much to the soup kitchen that I was asked to be on the board of trustees.  On the 5th anniversary of 9-11, the Bergen Record newspaper was doing a story on how the events had impacted Muslims.  Part of the story, the journalist wanted to reach out to a member of the community involved in social work.  He interviewed me and asked me at the end of the interview what we call our project.  At the moment, we had no formal name so the first thing that came to my mind was Muslims Against Hunger.

Why was it so important to address this issue for you personally?

Often I feel we don’t know what is going on around us.  There are people of all faiths around us who are in need of food.  Growing up I learned many things from my faith taught to me by my mother that encouraged helping the poor and making sure your neighbors and those within your community are taken care of.  Islam does not teach us that only Muslims should be helped but that the responsibility is to anyone who is in need.  Hunger has no religion and we need to educate ourselves about what is going on around us to be able to make a difference in our communities.

How did you organization start and how have you watched it grow?

Like I mentioned earlier, the idea for this organization developed after a school trip back in 2000.  Since the establishment, MAHP has now set up soup kitchens at 22 locations in 9 states including Toronto, Canada and Morne-Brule, Haiti.  Not only has MAHP participated in soup kitchens but it also provides social services to the poor and homeless in which opportunities are given to the recipients to become self-sufficient and reduce reliance on public and private assistance.

What has been your greatest challenge?

Unfortunately I’m sad to say it but I have had people opposed to the idea that we do not exclusively feed Muslims.  I am reminded of the verse of the Holy Quran (76:9) in which God reminds us that feeding is done for the sake of God and not to seek any reward or thanks.  If one were to pursue helping others solely for the return of accepting their faith, then the intention of doing good is corrupted and it contradicts the above mentioned verse of the Quran.

What are some new things to expect from MAHP?

MAHP will be participating in the USDA’s Summer Food Service Program this year which aims to fill the gap for children who rely on school meals throughout the academic year.   We are looking forward to be able to carry out this program under the USDA.
MAHP will also be opening up six satellite locations in Newark, NJ which will serve as a site for the homeless and poor to collect food items, clothing, and receive medical care for free.

What has been the greatest thing anyone has said to you about your initiative?

We recently purchased a 15,000 square foot building in Newark, NJ to run a full-time social services community center out of which various projects will take place.  There will be a soup kitchen, free internet café, library, a food and clothing pantry and career services to name a few.  Across the street there is a church and I recently met with the Pastor and told him about the plans for the building.  At the end of our conversation he said something to me that I did not expect.  He told me that what MAHP is doing was a dream of his.  He tried to convince his congregation to do exactly what the future purpose of the building will serve but he was not successful.   Even though his congregation could not do it, he was excited that somebody was and asked how he can invest in the project.

Can you tell us a little bit about the Newark building initiative?  Why is it necessary and how important is it for the community?

“Our Place at Newark – Baytuna,” the name of the Newark building is a huge project that we’re very excited about.  For the first time, MAHP will be able to conduct feeding programs and social services for the homeless and poor on a regular basis on a self-owned premise.  More people will be able to benefit from the services provided by MAHP and it makes us very pleased that we will be able to do this.  For the community of volunteers this is also important.  I truly believe the success of the project lies in the volunteers.  Having this building in Newark will be a very strong base where we can build a dedicated network of volunteers and God willing gain even better success at fighting hunger and homelessness.

“Our Place at Newark – Baytuna” will be the first such dedicated effort to my vision to open 5 “Our Place” social services centers in 5 states in the next 5 years.  I call this the Triple Five (555) Vision to overcome hunger and homelessness in five locations, in five states, in the next five years.  These ancillary supportive services will target specific needs of the local population needed for restoring human dignity and self sufficiency.    Some of the services provided through these venues will include empowerment through educational guidance, vocational direction, employment resources and informational referral services.

What would you like for people to understand about homelessness?

I would like people to understand why homeless is there.  The way society is, anyone can be homeless and there is no real support system to prevent it.  One can lose their job and find they have no money to pay for rent, mortgage, food, etc. and suddenly they are homeless.  I think we are quick to assume that homelessness is one’s own doing by choice through drugs or lack of education but that’s not 100% the case.  It is not by choice but rather by circumstance and most of the people you find out there are victims of circumstance which people do not realize.

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