Nameer Salman’s restaurant had about a dozen large groups already booked for iftar dinners before the coronavirus lockdowns and closures hit.
The Palestinian-American co-owner of Jasmine Cafe in Richardson, Texas, did everything in his power to keep his workers – “who are like our family,” he said – employed throughout the lockdown in the US state, even allowing his employees to take home needed food items to help their families out.
But with the business largely closed for the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan, and at reduced capacity for the remainder as the state reopened, Salman knew the month would be hard.
“Usually Ramadan is the best month for us during the whole year,” Salman said, adding that the cafe usually serves 400 to 500 people a day during the holy month.
“It’s [usually] really, really busy,” he told Al Jazeera over the phone.
When it became clear the large iftar dinners could not be held at the cafe, a patron – and Salman’s best friend, who had booked an iftar dinner for more than 100 people – approached Salman with a question: Could the cafe still make the food and donate it to families in need instead?
Salman did not quite know how initially, but he knew the idea could work.
With the help of a couple of trusted-community members, local mosques, and eventually the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) relief, Salman circulated a flyer where individuals in need could contact the restaurant for free meals.
“What got my attention,” he said, was the number of people who called saying they were in need of a meal – even before Ramadan began.
Restaurants, like Salman’s, and food trucks across the United States have started initiatives to donate food this Ramadan, practicing the act of charity, but also helping keep their own workers afloat. In New York City, several Islamic organisations and businesses teamed up to feed the homeless during the month. Muslim restaurant owners in Connecticut have reportedly been delivering meals and masks to a local hospital.
Other Muslim communities, including in the Dallas area, which includes Richardson, have purchased meals from local restaurants to donate to help the financially hurt businesses and those in need.
‘Need way bigger than usual’
Texas has more than 53,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus and at least 1,460 deaths, according to a Johns Hopkins University tally. While the state was one of the first to partially reopen, the state’s April jobless rate was 12.8 percent – the worst monthly rate on record. More than two million of the state’s estimated 29 million people applied for unemployment since mid-March.
“A lot of these people lost their jobs,” Salman said, referring to those who called him for a meal. “And they were at home with [their] children.”
Salman said their local initiative raised more than $40,000, which went to providing more than 5,800 meals. Every meal included four appetizers, a main dish – meat and chicken with rice and a vegetable – soup, bread and three desserts.
“We wanted those families to feel the same way we do [when we break fast],” Salman said.
He said they did not just serve Muslims, but anyone in the community who needs help. Some were given tickets to come through a drive-thru to pick up the meals, while other meals were delivered by Salman and his staff.
To reach more community members, Salman connected with ICNA, a nongovernmental organisation with offices across the US.
Hala Halabi, director of ICNA USA’s refugee programme, helped Salman hand out tickets for free meals to those in need.
ICNA, which has food banks and other support services across the country, does annual Ramadan drives to distribute food and supply boxes, but by the time the holy month came around this year, Halabi said they had already used up most of their resources due to the spiking need caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Halabi said she, her colleagues and ICNA volunteers searched out new donors. They were able to round up enough money and supplies to continue their Ramadan box drive. But they were also able to be a part of several hot-food initiatives, including Salman’s, during this year’s Ramadan.
“The need is way bigger than usual. Every year refugees are dependent on us [during Ramadan],” Halabi told Al Jazeera.
“But this year with the COVID, people literally don’t have food,” she said.
ICNA serves refugees, the homeless and immigrant communities throughout the Dallas-Fort Worth area. This includes Syrian, Iraqi, Afghan, and Rohingya communities – and many others.
Halabi said she worries especially for refugee communities during the pandemic.
“They need the support,” she said.
As for Salman, he is looking forward to his business returning – the cafe’s hookah lounge was allowed to reopen on Friday and Texas restaurants can now operate at 50 percent capacity – but he also hopes to continue the free meal initiative in some way after Ramadan ends this weekend.
“It’s a totally different feeling” this year, Salman said. “When you can help that many people, it’s amazing.”