by Molly Quinton
By 7 a.m. Saturday, twenty people were already waiting outside Belltown’s Millionair Club Charity, zigzagging down the street and trying to shield themselves from the rain. Two and a half hours later, as the doors opened at 9:30, the line wrapped around the block. Volunteers passed out Top Pot doughnuts and hot coffee, and they laughed and joked with those in line.
“I’ve lived in Seattle my whole life, but this is my first time here,” participant Theaellis Hall said. “I saw people lining up and came over to see what was going on. I really appreciate the warm clothes, since winters in Seattle are so damn cold.”
Hall was one of an estimated 300 people who attended Islamic Relief’s annual Day of Dignity event (hosted in partnership with the Muslim Community Resource Center). For a couple hours on Saturday morning, the event helped people who are homeless, or from low income households, gain access to meals, winter coats, hygiene kits, and health screenings.
“I love this event,” event organizer Nisreen El-Saadoun, from the Muslim Community Resource Center said. “We get to team up with people from all around the Seattle area, and people from all across the city come together to participate. In addition to providing these services to people who need it most it’s a great way to show what Islam is all about and the Muslim community is really like.”
When the program started in 2006, it was called “Humanitarian Day,” but the name was changed to “Day of Dignity” after organizers collaborated with the national organization Islamic Relief and hosted the Seattle event in conjunction with similar events occurring around the country. The gathering creates the opportunity for people from diverse communities across the city to provide supplies and services to members of the community who need them most.
“It’s one day a year for us to come out here and give back to people who don’t have access to services like these,” volunteer Faisal Zahoor said. “I’m lucky to have a bed and warm food every night, and not everyone is that fortunate.”
In January 2017, when King County did its annual point-in-time count , more than 11,600 people were estimated to be experiencing homelessness. Forty-seven percent of those who were experiencing homelessness were unsheltered—living on the streets, in parks, encampments, or vehicles—and nearly 4,000 of those people were found sleeping outdoors in Seattle.
Some of these unsheltered people lined up on Saturday morning to receive supplies and services from volunteers during the Day of Dignity event.
People enter the facility ten at a time and then wind through tables where volunteers passing out warm clothes, first aid kits, sanitary napkins, flashlights, and other supplies. At the last table, volunteers offer participants breakfast and the opportunity to get medical services, dental exams, or a haircut.
“It’s a great opportunity to get together and show what Islam is all about,” volunteer Mark Rishel said. “This is my second year, and I feel really lucky to be involved.”
After moving through the supply line and getting any medical attention they may need, people who received services that day are invited to fill out a short survey. Organizers use their responses to determine what supplies are lacking this year and how the event could be improved next year.
“Make a connection with them,” event organizer Aziz Junejo said to volunteers. “You will feel it if you fully participate, and it will make it more fulfilling for them and for you.”
Some of the homeless people waiting in line have been coming to the event for a long time, while others are participating in their first Day of Dignity.
“I’ve been coming here for years,” Mark Johnson said while waiting in line to receive medical attention. “At least there’s one day a year where I know I can get some stuff and a warm meal.”
A 60-year-old man, who did not want his name used in this story, has been homeless for nearly six years now. After losing his cashier’s job at a downtown Seattle drugstore, he found he was unable to pay his rent. Since then, he has moved from shelter to shelter.
“I heard from a friend at the shelter I’m staying at that I could get a free coat here today,” he said. “Events like this and people like these people are what keep me going, I probably would have been dead a long time ago without all this help.”
In addition to providing necessary services to the participants, the day is also an opportunity to highlight work being done by the Muslim community in Seattle and to challenge misconceptions about the religion.
One of Islam’s five pillars, summarized in the hadith from Gabriel, is Zakat. Zakat means charity or taking care of and giving to the poor. Several of the volunteers spoke about how their religion drives them to be at this event and what giving back to their community means to them.
“I’ve been doing this since 2007,” volunteer Omar Abdulalim said. “I bring my kids now; I want them to learn that life isn’t all about you. People get such false ideas about Muslims, but the Quran teaches us to love and give charity, and that’s what this event is all about. ”
Day of Dignity provides, at least during this one moment each year, relief from the hardships impoverished populations experience on a regular basis.
“This is Islam,” Abdulalim said.
Featured image by Molly Quinton