London is witnessing something inspiring during the holy month of Ramazan: the city’s youngsters have come together to feed the people – mainly passers-by – for free so that they can break their fast at London’s Malet Street Gardens.
The initiative Ramadan Tent was started by Omar Salha, a Muslim young man who is a postgraduate student at the School of Oriental and African Studies.
“In 2011 when we started, we had only a [shopping] trolley with a handful of foods donated to us,” says 28-year-old Salha, the man behind Ramadan Tent.
“It wasn’t healthy at all – we only had things we could get our hands on. Most of the stuff was [from] the supermarkets. Around 10 to 15 of us would go and buy pizzas, crisps, tea, coffee, water, and dates – you know, the simple stuff.”
Today, according to Salha, the initiative which was first started by a very few students on his university grounds, asking people to come and get the free meals in Ramazan.
Salha’s mission has now reached other cities across the globe as well like Manchester, London, and Plymouth in the United Kingdom, Istanbul in Turker, Ndola in Zambia, and Portland in Canada, with around 400 volunteers having signed up for the cause as they give the iftari meal to some 300 guests in London alone.
“All that’s needed is a tent, a generator, banquet rolls, plates, bin bags, patient volunteers, food parcels, funding, T-shirts for volunteers, and a PA system. And you need desserts,” Salha says. “It’s a simple concept and in Muslim-majority countries it’s very normal during Ramazan to have these open tents where people can come and collect free food.”
Salha got his source of inspiration after seeing the difficulties Muslim students faced in UK during Ramazan as they were far away from their families, and the warmth they would get at their homes.
“I wanted to embody that spirit here in London where there was a space – an alternative space so to speak, a third space – where you can invite people from all faiths, all backgrounds to come and learn and to connect with their Muslim neighbours,” he says. “But it’s also for Muslims to reach out to their local community, and not just the Muslim community, but with communities in general.”
It was during the riots in 2011 in the city that he thought he should start something like this in order to respond with kindness, “So for me it was an opportunity to showcase how strong London is and Londoners should be coming out in force, and it made sense with Ramazan coinciding, to be strong”, he added.
When asked if his initiative is basically a kind response against the anti-Muslim rhetoric these days, he said: “I wouldn’t say it was a reaction, as we should be doing this irrespective of the climate.”
Salha went on to say, “But we can’t be naive and not acknowledge the climate that we’re living in, and it’s important to say that despite the media onslaught there’s nothing to be afraid about – please come and have a look. We’re not forcing people to come; the doors are open and it’s an open-door policy for everyone.”
Throughout these years, Salha has had some amazing experiences to share. Among them is of Polish men who were invited by his team to join the event.
“We invited them in and said there was free food, and they said, ‘We haven’t got anything else to do’ and they came and sat with us,” Salha said.
He added: “When they saw the call to prayer being made and saw us praying, I sat with a couple of them. It was very interesting to hear what they had to say: ‘Oh Muslims are pretty cool, you’re fun, you’re laughing, and before I came I thought all Muslims are terrorists.’ It’s funny when you hear these comments and think, in 2016, really? So it only gives us the impetus to do more and to carry on with this project.”
Salha is hopeful that he would keep working on his project and will try to expand it.
He also aims to respond to the refugee crisis. Salha opines that the project’s core ethos is very simple.
“I tell the committee if one person attends, just one person, but we made that person feel welcome and fed them, that’s a success for me. But if one person came and felt neglected then that’s a failure despite us serving 300 people.”