In 2009, a group of Muslim-American friends decided to make peanut butter sandwiches and distribute them on Skid Row. “It was something we felt was needed in the community,” Zia Qureshi says. “Friends would come, then volunteers who heard of us through social media, and before we knew it, we got a nonprofit status.”
Qureshi is the founder and president of the Halal Project, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that is entirely volunteer-run and -operated. The group coordinates food distribution events in downtown Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley and, over the last eight years, has served thousands of people on Skid Row. It serves an estimated average of 250 to 500 volunteer-prepared halal meals at every event.
The word halal refers to any item or action that is permissible to use in accordance to Islamic law. In regards to food, it means an absence of pork and that the meat is slaughtered in a specific way, as prescribed by the Koran.
“For the food distribution, meat is the only thing we’re strict about,” Qureshi says. “Everything else is OK.” The sheer diversity of food options in Los Angeles makes this an easy feat. Halal butchers and grocery stores are plentiful in Southern California. In fact, many of them have acted as sponsors; Altayebat Market in Anaheim, for one, provided roast beef at cost.
The project is run by a board of volunteers who all juggle full-time jobs. While most of the board is of Muslim faith, Qureshi stresses that the organization is all-inclusive and that its meals are simply an option for halal-abiding folks on Skid Row who need it.
“We are not religion-based. We are community-based,” Humayun Siddiqui, one of the board members of the Halal Project, says. “We do not preach. No one has to listen to anything.”
Student groups from local universities are an active part of Halal Project's volunteer base. Most of the volunteers and donations are acquired through word-of-mouth and social media.
"We had this one woman make teriyaki chicken for 350 people," Siddiqui says. "A librarian came once and just started handing out books. People loved it."
The main goal of the events is to give back to the community; no one inquires about the religious background of the homeless.
“Every event, we do notice one brother or sister from the Muslim faith,” Qureshi says. “In fact, the very first person in line at our first event happened to be Muslim and offered to give a prayer.”
The organization also directly assists people within the Muslim community in Los Angeles with grocery shopping or utility bills.
“Help your neighbors,” Qureshi says, referencing a key teaching of Islam. “Life is bigger than buying a bigger TV or car.”
In a time where the Muslim community is reeling from President Donald Trump’s recent policies, both Qureshi and Siddiqui say they've only seen more good in people. Siddiqui, who is from Pakistan, is especially optimistic. He notes he has seen more support from Angelenos in the recent months — not less.
“Yes [Trump’s policies] has negative implications, but I see it as a blessing,” Siddiqui says. “People have been more open. They will come up to us and ask us if there’s anything we need. I feel lucky to be here in California.”
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While religion does not provide a role in who is served and who serves, Qureshi credits Allah for the success of the project.
He tells stories of going to the grocery store to shop for the events and having people randomly hand him money. His mom teaches kids how to read the Koran in her home; they started a donation box and raised more than $200 from spare change. The van and the truck the group uses were donated to the project.
“I’m telling you, the big guy provides,” Qureshi says, pointing up to the sky.