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Let's Make Ramadan More Than an Exercise in Empathy

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For faithful Muslims in Los Angeles, Ramadan is an exercise in empathy for the more than 2 billion people in the world who live on less than $2 a day. It's also a lesson in gratitude.

Abstaining from food and water from the break of dawn until sunset gives those of us living in the world's most obese country a figurative taste of extreme poverty. In fact, back in 2008, when Rory Caroll broke the story to the world about mud cakes -- yes, cakes of dried dirt mixed with sugared water -- becoming a staple food in Haiti because of soaring global food costs, I counted my blessings. Having fasted every Ramadan since fourth grade, I was reminded of not just the hunger but the dizziness, headaches and fatigue that resulted from 15 or so hours of depriving my body of nutrition. The idea that this is a perpetual reality for people in Haiti in particular leaves me in sheer awe of how lucky I am. My fears and insecurities over one mundane thing or another diminish with the knowledge that I don't have to eat mud to survive.

Last summer when the East African drought, which led to the loss of tens of thousands Somali lives, coincided with Ramadan, the entire Muslim community rallied around aid efforts. Muslim organizations like Helping Hand for Relief and Development and Islamic Relief launched dynamic fundraising campaigns, imams dedicated Friday sermons to raising awareness of the issue, and youth groups held basketball tournaments and bake sales benefitting Somali relief.

Last July when our Center offered the pulpit to an international Muslim relief organization to make an urgent appeal for funds for the needy of Africa, a woman interested in learning more about aiding the poor approached me. As a staff member of the Islamic Center of Southern California, I can often be found in the lobby after prayers interacting with congregants and appealing for their support around one cause or another. When she approached me, I assumed she was interested in learning more about how to help needy in developing countries.

"I heard the announcement about helping needy people," she said. I launched into an appeal about how much a small contribution can accomplish; x amount can subsidize the feeding of a child, y amount can nourish an entire family for a week...

She listened until I had finished my impromptu sermon before replying. "I understand this, sister, but my two daughters and I are homeless and I want to know how we can get help." The irony was that our community was looking the other way with regards to the needy in our backyard.

I have seen this woman almost every Friday since then. Sometimes I check in on her to see how she's doing; had she called the emergency social service hotline whose number I gave her last week, had she met with the Zakat (alms) Committee at the mosque for charitable assistance, had she still been sleeping in the park at nights. Her response is always that she had recently received some piecemeal help, a grocery coupon here and emergency boarding there.

Her situation is as tragic as any story: partially caused by her inability to change her condition and partially due to simple bad luck. Confounding this is the impact of state budget cuts toward programs providing shelter, housing and services to homeless in Los Angeles City and County.

Since last July, I have met other Muslims who silently suffer with poverty and homelessness in our community -- people who have often gone completely unnoticed by those of us who pray alongside them. As Ramadan 2012 approaches, I am thinking about what is needed from me, the American Muslims of Southern California and society at large to offer more than mere bandages to gushing wounds, but transformative change to the lives of our brethren in humanity and faith. How can this Ramadan be more than a symbolic exercise in empathy? How can we be more than actors playing the part of the hungry?

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