Houston Muslims reach out to those in need for more than food
By Ruth Nasrullah
They serve people who are otherwise forgotten, people who face an enormity of need, and they do it with goodwill and modest pride.
They are the volunteers who run the Hunger Truck, an initiative started by a New York-based nonprofit organization, Muslims Giving Back. This program has expanded to Houston and Dallas, with plans to set up a program in Washington, D.C., soon.
So what exactly is a Hunger Truck? It’s a mobile restaurant of sorts, just like a food truck, with a kitchen in the back and big windows in the front through which volunteers hand out food. The Hunger Truck doesn’t sell food, though; it gives it away.
“When I heard about the Hunger Truck and started to get involved with it, I was so down for it,” said Yasmine Abushmeis, a volunteer coordinator whose background includes organizing charitable work with Girl Scout and Boy Scout troops through the MultiCultural Center (MCC) in Webster, Texas, just outside of Houston. “What having the truck has really allowed us to do is be consistent with our efforts.”
The Hunger Truck’s outreach in the Houston area is one of MCC’s numerous community-based charitable programs that include food distribution to needy residents.
While the MCC’s main food distribution program happens on site, the Hunger Truck goes to the areas where there is a need, where people lack the means to travel and pick up food. The organizers alternate between two methods — cooking and catering. Area restaurants provide meals at discounted prices. When the meals are prepared by volunteers, it becomes a real community endeavor.
Coordinator Tamer Mansour describes the atmosphere of a catering day. “The whole project has a lot of positivity,” he said. “When we cook as a team, it’s high school students, young professionals, college students, Muslims, non-Muslims, black, white, Asian — everybody just talking, cooking, helping and caring.”
Whether it’s cooking or catering, the Hunger Truck generally provides services to three groups: refugee communities, people experiencing homelessness and residents of women’s shelters.
More Than Food
Although Houston has been hailed as a success story in reducing homelessness, the challenge hasn’t gone away, especially since the pandemic’s economic impact continues and people living in tents under highway overpasses are still hungry. The Hunger Truck travels to different locations throughout the city to provide meals — but they often provide much more, according to Yasmine Abushmeis.
“What we’ve come to learn … basically from the first few times when we started serving, it was more than the food,” she said. “What people really needed was conversation. If you think about it, somebody who’s out on the streets all day — they’re used to being ignored.”
Following in the prophetic tradition, charity is also a form of da’wah, as highlighted by a conversation she had with a man at a homeless feeding.
“A moment that really touched my heart was when one of the guys that we serve said, ‘You know, I have never felt so valued. Every single person in that assembly line looked me in my eyes and talked to me. I never felt that way.’ And he pointed at my hijab and said, ‘I served against your people overseas, and I never expected this.’”
The Hunger Truck in Action
I visited a serving day recently at an apartment complex in the Woodlake-Briar Meadow (also known as Mid-West) section of Houston. The area is west of downtown Houston, and the apartments are just off Richmond Avenue, a main street. The Gables complex has all white exteriors and a crowded parking lot; it looks almost urban compared to the neat and tidy homes on the surrounding streets. When I first arrived, I accidentally pulled into an alley behind the building at first and drove past what was clearly a bed set-up for a homeless person.
When I pulled into the correct lot, the Hunger Truck was busy — a table in front from which people could easily pick up bags. There was no line; throughout the afternoon, people steadily arrived individually or in family groups. Volunteer Muhammed Abdelhalim showed me the truck’s interior, where a group of volunteers was busy portioning food from trays into Styrofoam containers. He said that they were short on volunteers that day, so some members of the Afghan refugee community — those whom the Hunger Truck was there to serve — had stepped up to volunteer.
Apparently, the volunteer shortage was due in part to the fact that with Ramadan having ended recently, energy had waned a bit. During this past Ramadan, every night they collected trays of leftover food from Islamic centers to bring to the refugee families. Muhammed estimated that the Hunger Truck served about 40 to 50 families, many of whom arrived in Houston during the past 10 months — U.S. troops pulled out of Afghanistan during August 2021.
Sulaiman Kakar, a teenager, said he had fled Afghanistan as American troops were withdrawing and that the Taliban had begun resurging. His mother worked for a Taliban-targeted women’s organization. It was a long trek to Houston. Their journey took them to Qatar and then to Germany and Washington, D.C. Their final stop, before arriving in Houston one year ago, was Fort McCoy, a U.S. Army base in Wisconsin (He said it was fine, except for the bland American food).
Hamid Shah, another Afghan refugee, has been in Houston for three months. Through a translator, he told me he and his family are glad to be here, where they feel safe. He and Sulaiman agreed that they are living “a new story in America,” as Kakar put it.
“Different language, different life, different rules,” Shah said.
As I drove away, I saw two children on a second-floor balcony enjoying their dinner from the Hunger Truck. I drove back down Richmond Avenue, passing signs for the Beverage Barn and Poker Run. Indeed, life must really be different for the Afghan refugees here.
The Hunger Truck program organizers plan to expand their services. According to Mansour, their short-term plan is to serve meals twice a week throughout 2022. Their long-term plan is to establish a kitchen within the MCC with the capacity to cook meals for the Hunger Truck daily. They aim to continue serving the populations with whom they are working now – refugees, the homeless and residents of women’s shelters.
Of course, ambitious plans require funding. Mansour says they need $150,000 to build the expanded kitchen. And the Hunger Truck organizers will, of course, continue recruiting volunteers. But Abushmeis has full confidence in her community .
“The main thing for me, when I think about this project, is the unity aspect, of getting people at all levels of communities to recognize that we all have blessings. Those blessings may be different for each one of us, but it’s incumbent upon us to kind of redistribute that wealth,” she says. “Like the whole concept of sharing what you have.”
Ruth Nasrullah is a freelance writer (https://ruthnasrullah.com/).
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