August 31, 2010 § Leave a comment
These are the reflections of one activist who decided to go homeless for a week to experience the life of those suffering from poverty, and to draw attention to the issue of homelessness in America. May Allah reward his efforts!
By: Yusef Ramelize
In 2009 I went homeless in the first week of March, but it was nothing compared to doing my summer homeless project this year. Even though my homeless experience last year was in the middle of the winter and I slept in the subway stations and trains, my journey this year was much more difficult because I was sleeping outside in the street on a card board box every night. I was fasting during the day with very little energy and I was face to face with homeless people because of course the homeless are much more visible during the summer. It was a more “real” experience this year.
My days consisted of giving out fliers during the day or sleeping on park benches. When sunset arrived, I would walk to the NYU Islamic Center to break my fast. Most nights I’d walk to Park51 to say my tarawih (nighttime) prayers. I didn’t sleep much. After the night prayers, I’d walk to Union Square from downtown, spending hours trying to find a place to sleep.
This project isn’t about me finding a cure for homelessness; I want to inspire people to make their own sacrifices and become agents of change. Change doesn’t need to come from extreme means – it comes from someone simply paying attention to the issue of homelessness, striking up a conversation with a homeless person, asking them if they’d like some food, or simply giving them a smile.
I’ve learned that education about homelessness is very important. I’ve spoken to so many people that think homeless people are “lazy” and “don’t want to work.” One of my goals is to let people know how false this statement is. Anyone could become homeless. In fact, many of us are just one paycheck away from being homeless, especially in NYC and how expensive it is to live and survive here.
I am a Muslim and I see the beauty in it everyday, especially in the holy month of Ramadan. Going homeless for one week during this month helped me to reflect even further on the trials and tribulations that the less fortunate suffer from. I can choose to eat when I want. Not everyone has that choice. Support from my family and friends is what gave me the push to take on this journey and to not give up.
One of the most touching moments of my homeless experience was while I was sleeping on a bench in Union Square Park and I felt a stare that made me wake up. It was my sister and her eyes were filled with tears. She said, “Yusef… All my life I was living in a bubble, selfish, not concerning my self with the world’s problems. Not caring about any one’s problems but my own. This year seeing you go through this journey has made me realize that I desperately need to change.”
We talked on that bench and figured out all the different things she would volunteer for this year and in the years to come. Remembering this moment still brings tears to my eyes.
Knowing that I was able to inspire my sister means the world to me. It feels like the greatest accomplishment that anyone could ask for.
I hope that my journey was able to educate, inspire and change a few people’s hearts about homelessness.
August 24, 2010 § 2 Comments
In my daily life I have found it difficult to balance my everyday concerns with concerns over my spiritual state and the life hereafter, something that many Muslims struggle with of course. When I do, however, take the time to reflect on my soul and my relationship with God, I evaluate my state in relation to common checklist items that are often cited as the proper tools to help reach an ideal level of religiosity and connection with Allah: prayer, fasting, giving money to the poor, being respectful to my parents and elders, asking for forgiveness from God, etc. These are the things which my mind naturally turns to when I think of striving to improve myself, and on the days I have given particular attention to my prayer or to extra good deeds, I often feel happier with the knowledge that I’ve at least made this day a good one with notable good deeds that will inshaAllah being me reward from the Most Merciful.
But recently I have begun to feel agitated internally because I’m realizing these checklist items are not enough. The items of course are of utmost importance, especially prayer, but I cannot be expected to reach higher levels of ihsan (goodness) if I have not evaluated every single aspect of my life, whether those aspects are overtly connected to religiosity or not. Actions cannot be evaluated in isolation of other actions, as many of the Prophet’s lessons have taught us (peace be upon him). So what have I left out? Well, I’m praying and extra sunnah prayers and donating some money to charity, I always try to serve my parents well and stay connected to my relatives, I fast, and I strive to remember Allah throughout the day. I seem to have much covered, or am at least conscious of the important things….right?
But after all of that, after I pray that prayer in the mosque, leave my change in the donation box, say ‘salaam’ to a community member…… I stroll to my Toyota sporting my Tommy Hilfiger Jeans, get in and drive to my middle class suburban neighbourhood that is close to that sprawling North American mall I like to visit to buy more stuff that I ‘need’. Of course these objects I surround myself by are technically within the realm of the halal, and there’s no harm in enjoying the bounties God has bestowed upon me to a certain degree. I do try to keep in mind that as a North American, I live a very materialistic lifestyle. But materialism isn’t necessarily the source of my internal agitation and discomfort. I should say, rather, that it is not the only source. In the West, we live in extreme wealth and consume 80% of the world’s resources. After having lived abroad I have come to see that what I think middle class means isn’t middle class at all. In relative terms, I live like a queen and bask in luxuries beyond the imagination of the majority of the world’s population. I have to always remind myself that I misuse the word ‘need’ when I should actually be using the word ‘want’, telling myself to be content with the fact that I have enough – too much, in fact.
But as I said, materialism is not the only source of my dilemma: The knowledge that the luxury I’m wrapped in was made possible by the injustice and exploitation of the poorest of the poor, and I that I live my life of North American comfort on the backs of my brothers and sisters across the globe, eats me up inside. How can I sleep comfortably in my bed at night when everything in my bedroom, from the bed sheets to the alarm clock, have probably been manufactured in sweatshops where workers have been paid as little as 87 cents an hour, possibly less? I have been fooling myself in thinking that the slave era is mostly over. Allah says in the Qur’an, “blame attaches but to those who oppress [other] people and behave outrageously on earth, offending against all right: for them there is grievous suffering in store!” (42:42). No, I’m not involved in the making and maintenance of those terrible sweatshop conditions, but my comfort and ease are a direct result of this exploitation as I benefit from the products these poor workers slave over. I own the products they slave over! Their hands have bled over my things, and I don’t even give it a second thought as long as I am still able to purchase cheap goods.
I cannot continue to feel that this is okay. As a Muslim, my duty is to struggle against oppression on earth. If my lifestyle is a cause of the oppression of thousands of individuals, then something within it must change, and I cannot keep thinking that the normal checklist items are the only measures of my levels of religiosity. This blog is the beginning of that change and I hope that through it I can help bring others along with me on the journey to transform that internal agitation and discomfort with my extreme North American lifestyle into to real action.