Chicago Muslims give 5000 turkeys for Thanksgiving
By: Manya Brachear Pashman (Contact Reporter)
Source: Chicago Tribune
As a line of schoolchildren obediently marched past the canary yellow lockers Tuesday morning at Woodlawn Community School, two more lines had formed at the end of the hallway — an assembly line of volunteers unloading a semitrailer full of turkeys, and the mothers and grandmothers waiting to take one home to feed their families.
Volunteers also hung a banner advertising the Sabeel Food Pantry, a Muslim-run pantry on the city’s Northwest Side. The mission of Sabeel — an Arabic word meaning “way” — is to give the poor a way to survive, a central obligation of the Muslim faith, volunteers say.
For 16 years, the Chicago Muslim community has distributed free Thanksgiving turkeys to underprivileged families on the South Side. But this holiday season, the group more than tripled the number of free birds from last year to 5,000 and expanded the project to eight elementary schools in three neighborhoods.
Dr. Sofia Shakir, an organizer of the annual turkey drive, said while plans to expand the effort had been underway for almost a year, it was serendipitous that it all came together after what she considered a discouraging presidential campaign — and now amid fears of being viewed as un-American by the administration of President-elect Donald Trump. Last year, just days before Thanksgiving, Trump proposed the government register and track Muslims in the U.S. as part of the nation’s war on terror. Earlier this week, Trump’s incoming chief of staff Reince Priebus said there would not be a registry based on religion but would not “rule out anything.”
At Woodlawn Community School on Tuesday, teachers and parents welcomed the Muslim volunteers with open arms.
“These are the times we’re living in now,” said Victoria Bowens, chair of Woodlawn’s local school council. “Those things didn’t come from us. We know how it feels to be discriminated against. They were able to rise up and step up to help the less fortunate, in spite of.”
Shakir and her husband, Dr. Jihad Shoshara, called the turkey drive a homecoming of sorts. As a student at the University of Chicago, Shakir tutored children after school in Woodlawn. Shoshara attended Chicago public schools. “The turkey drive is a small way in which I feel that I can give back,” he said.
“We are all part of the same,” Shakir said. “We’re not helping others. We’re helping our own.”
Teachers and principals at all eight schools have embraced the effort, some using it as an incentive to bolster parental involvement. At Wadsworth Elementary School, parents who had attended parent-teacher conferences got golden tickets to go to the front of the line, though no one walked away without a turkey.
The turkey drive started 16 years ago when then–special education teacher Sadia Warsi heard from a third-grader in her class that he simply wished for food in the refrigerator.
“I was shocked that in a country like ours that was a child’s wish,” said Warsi, who is now an associate professor in special education at National Louis University.
She and her husband, Chicago attorney Kamran Memon, both Muslim, called on their community to help buy turkeys for children in Chicago public schools. A teacher pointed them to McCosh Elementary School, now Emmet Till Elementary School, because it served a particularly low-income population at that time. For several years, every parent at the school got a turkey.
In 2006, Memon turned the project over to Shakir and Shoshara, longtime volunteers. Through a partnership with the Chicago-based Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America, the largest halal certifier in the U.S. that also runs the Sabeel Food Pantry, Shakir was able to negotiate a wholesale price and arrange for refrigerated trucks to make the deliveries. The council matched donations this year to expand its outreach.
Shoshara said the project puts into practice Muslim teachings and fulfills one of the five pillars of Islam called zakat, or charity. For guidance, he looks to the Prophet Muhammad, who is believed to have said: “He is not a believer whose stomach is filled while the neighbor to his side goes hungry.”
But it’s about more than feeding the hungry, Shoshara said. It’s about giving families a way to make a meal and do something for their children.
“If you can have the turkey in your own home and celebrate like everyone else in America, that gives them a sense of dignity,” Shoshara said.
Lawyer LaDale George, 52, of Oak Park, said he has volunteered for the turkey drive since the beginning. Thanksgiving is his favorite holiday because it’s not political or religious, it’s universal, he said.
“No matter who you are, where you’re from or what you believe, everyone is thankful for something,” he said. “It’s the most genuine holiday and creates a sense of giving and sharing.”
Sheree Kelley-Lomax, 23, went to her son’s school Tuesday morning to pick up a turkey. As a single mom expecting her third child in January, she welcomes any help she can get to put food on the table and make ends meet.
“Something like this allows us to come together as a unit because we need unity,” she said. “I think the election will allow many people to become humble.”
Gladys Tyler, 66, whose granddaughter goes to Woodlawn Community School, said until she got the letter about the turkey drive, she wondered whether there would be enough to feed more than 20 relatives planning to gather at her sister’s house Thursday in Roseland. Now she will show up to the potluck with a turkey and desserts.
“It’s a blessing that they’re contributing to people in great need,” she said. “It’s an added warmth.”