Bangladesh ‘guest house’ reaps Ramadan rewards with free meals for all

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The aim was to provide hot meals to orphaned children, rickshaw pullers, street vendors and other marginalized sections of society severely impacted by the health crisis.
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The aim was to provide hot meals to orphaned children, rickshaw pullers, street vendors and other marginalized sections of society severely impacted by the health crisis.
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The aim was to provide hot meals to orphaned children, rickshaw pullers, street vendors and other marginalized sections of society severely impacted by the health crisis.
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The aim was to provide hot meals to orphaned children, rickshaw pullers, street vendors and other marginalized sections of society severely impacted by the health crisis.
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The aim was to provide hot meals to orphaned children, rickshaw pullers, street vendors and other marginalized sections of society severely impacted by the health crisis.
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Updated 05 May 2021

Bangladesh ‘guest house’ reaps Ramadan rewards with free meals for all

  • Akhtar and her team of 16 volunteers feed nearly 1,600 people at ‘Mehman Khana’ every day
  • Plans to run the program for ‘as long as the pandemic continues’

DHAKA: There is a long queue of people waiting outside Asma Akhter Liza’s house in a quaint corner of the Lalmatia residential area of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh.

The doors of her house will soon open, and Liza, along with a team of 16 volunteers, will begin dishing out free food to the poor and needy in her neighborhood exactly an hour before sunset when Muslims break their dawn-to-dusk fast with an iftar or an evening meal.

The scene has played on repeat since the first day of Ramadan this year when Liza, 36, continued the “Mehman Khana” — or guest house initiative — which she launched during the pandemic and ensuing lockdown last year.

The aim was to provide hot meals to orphaned children, rickshaw pullers, street vendors and other marginalized sections of society severely impacted by the health crisis.

“On average, we feed around 1,600 people every day,” Liza told Arab News.

“We also send nearly 400 food packs to different houses in the area. These were all solvent families, but due to the pandemic, they lost their jobs and source of income and felt too embarrassed to queue up for food,” she added.

Each food pack contains dates, lentils, diced cucumbers, puffed rice, a jalebi (deep-fried dessert) and lemonade. 

On Fridays, the menu includes a beef curry with boiled rice and vegetables.

It costs Liza 50 cents to make each pack, with nearly $500 set aside for the initiative every day.

“I do it with my funds and also through the support offered by some friends and relatives. Sometimes, people from the community help me with basic food items too,” she said, adding that a few businesses had offered to sponsor the initiative. But Liza had other plans: “I don’t want to make it a corporate program with big banners, so I declined their offer.” 

Liza, who has been working with underprivileged children at various orphanages for several years, launched her program to feed two dozen street children in Lalmatia.

After losing three of her newborn children “due to health complications,” Liza said she wanted to help other children in need.

“I could see my children in the faces of these helpless street children, which prompted me to initiate this service,” she said.

What began with free meals for 24 street kids soon expanded to 800 people after “so many started approaching me for food.”

However, soon she hit a roadblock due to a severe shortage of funds even as the number of people in need of aid increased every day.

“I couldn’t continue the services for many days, so I cut it down from a daily program to once a week, on Fridays,” she said.

This year, starting from the first week of April, when the government reinforced the coronavirus lockdown, Liza said she decided to reach out to more distressed people during Ramadan.

Supporting her in the initiative are five women and 11 men who help with the food preps and packing from 11 a.m. every day.

“I found out about this initiative through Facebook last year and wanted to join it as a volunteer,” Aeyasha Ferdousi, 39, a primary school teacher from Kustia, 170 km from Dhaka, told Arab News.

“Initially, I would allocate only a few hours of my time. But this year, with schools closed due to the lockdown... I joined Liza full time,” she added.

Ferdousi says Liza’s initiative has had a domino effect, with plans in place to replicate the idea in Kustia.

“I was so moved by the program, and I want to replicate it in my hometown. With experience gained after working with Liza, I think I can manage it without any hassles,” Ferdousi added.

Another volunteer, 19-year-old Syed Sabet Banani, an engineering student from Chottogram, 245 km from Dhaka, is also extending his support for the program.

“During this pandemic, I had nothing to do except sit idle at home. So, I decided to dedicate my time to people most in need of it,” Banani told Arab News.

Some of Mehman Khana’s beneficiaries said the initiative has been a “godsend for all.”

“This iftar saves me at least 50 cents every day. The money I save helps me provide for my family in our village,” Mohammad Ator Ali, 59, a rickshaw puller from Mirpur, told Arab News.

Another rickshaw puller, Yasin Miah, said the food aid program had been a “great help” to many like him who were otherwise worried about sourcing money for a daily meal.

“I don’t get enough passengers in these lockdown days, and my income also decreased. At least now I don’t need to spend any money for iftar,” Miah told Arab News.

Liza said she has vowed to keep the guest house open for as long as the pandemic continues.

“I am really grateful to my husband and in-laws for supporting me in my initiative. I find peace in this and will continue doing it until life gets back to normal,” she said.


Johnson ‘anxious’ over rise of Indian virus variant in UK

Updated 13 May 2021

Johnson ‘anxious’ over rise of Indian virus variant in UK

  • “It is a variant of concern, we are anxious about it," Johnson said
  • Imperial College London said overall cases have fallen to their lowest level since August

LONDON: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Thursday he was “anxious” about a rise in the UK of the coronavirus variant first identified in India.
His worries surfaced after a closely-monitored study of infections in England found the variant is becoming more prevalent just ahead of the next big easing of lockdown restrictions.
“It is a variant of concern, we are anxious about it,” Johnson said. “We want to make sure we take all the prudential, cautious steps now that we could take, so there are meetings going on today to consider exactly what we need to do. There is a range of things we could do, we are ruling nothing out.”
In its latest assessment published Thursday, Imperial College London said overall cases have fallen to their lowest level since August following a strict lockdown and a successful rollout of vaccines. However, it warned that the Indian variant should be closely monitored.
The so-called REACT study found that the Indian variant, designated “of concern” because it could be more transmissible, was identified in 7.7 percent of the 127,000 cases tested between Apr.15 and May 3.
Professor Steven Riley from Imperial College said it’s unclear whether the Indian variant is more transmissible but warned that “this is a risk.”
Though the British government and scientists have said new cases may start to go up in coming weeks, it’s unclear whether that will lead to a big increase in hospitalizations and deaths given that most of those people deemed vulnerable have been vaccinated.
Over the past few weeks as India has suffered a catastrophic resurgence of the virus, concerns have grown around the world about potential new variants bypassing the protections offered by vaccines.
Across the UK, lockdown restrictions are being lifted. The next easing in England is set to take place on Monday when two households will be able to mix indoors and pubs and restaurants will be able to serve customers inside, among other changes. The other nations of the UK — Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — have also laid out similar plans for the coming weeks.
The government hopes to lift most remaining restrictions on social contact in June.
“At the moment, I can see nothing that dissuades me from thinking we will be able to go ahead on Monday and indeed on June 21, everywhere, but there may be things we have to do locally and we will not hesitate to do them if that is the advice we get,” Johnson said.
The government’s scientific advisory committee, known as SAGE, will be making recommendations about the pandemic’s path. It is due to meet later.
Currently there are few signs the previous easing has led to an increase in new infections, which are averaging around 2,300 a day across the UK, compared with nearly 70,000 recorded in January at the peak of the second wave.
The fall in infections has led to a sharp decline in daily coronavirus-related deaths, with 11 reported on Thursday. Still, the UK has recorded Europe’s highest virus-related death toll, at more than 127,600.
The successful rollout of vaccines has also helped keep a lid on infections alongside the lockdown. Around 54 percent of the British population has had at least one dose of vaccine with about a quarter having received two doses. The rollout is being expanded further, with vaccines now being made available to people aged 38 and 39.


Jewish group condemns ‘pure antisemitism’ in German protests

Updated 13 May 2021

Jewish group condemns ‘pure antisemitism’ in German protests

  • German cities including Berlin, Hamburg and Hannover have seen anti-Israeli protests over the past few days
  • Two synagogues were attacked and several Israeli flags were torn down and burned since violence erupted in Israel and the Gaza Strip.

BERLIN: Germany’s leading Jewish group on Thursday sharply condemned protests in front of a synagogue in the western city of Gelsenkirchen as “pure antisemitism.”
Several other German cities including Berlin, Hamburg and Hannover have seen anti-Israeli protests over the past few days.
At least two synagogues were attacked, and several Israeli flags were torn down and burned since the latest eruption of violence in Israel and the Gaza Strip.
The Central Council of Jews in Germany tweeted a video of dozens of protesters in Gelsenkirchen waving Palestinian and Turkish flags and yelling expletives about Jews.
“Jew hatred in the middle of Gelsenkirchen in front of the synagogue. The times in which Jews were cursed in the middle of the street should have long been over. This is pure antisemitism, nothing else!” the group tweeted.
The German government repeatedly condemned anti-Israeli and antisemitic attacks earlier this week and said that “the perpetrators must be found and held responsible and Jewish institutions must be protected thoroughly.”
On Thursday, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told Funke Media Group that “there must be zero tolerance for attacks on synagogues in our country.”
“All of us are called on to make it very clear that we do not accept if Jews in Germany are made responsible for the events in the Middle East — neither in the streets nor on social media,” Maas added.
The protests in Gelsenkirchen on Wednesday were dispersed by police, German news agency DPA reported, but authorities reported further incidents in other parts of the country.
Some cities which had hoisted Israeli flags in front of their city halls on Wednesday in remembrance of the start of German-Israeli diplomatic relations on May 12, 1965, reported that the flags were torn down and sometimes burned.
An Israeli flag in front of a city hall in the western town of Solingen was torn and burnt and two Israeli flags in Berlin were also torn down late Wednesday night.
On Tuesday night, police stopped 13 suspects in the western city of Muenster near a synagogue after an Israeli flag was burned there. In the western city of Bonn, police said several people damaged the entrance of a synagogue with stones and investigators found a burned flag as well. In nearby Duesseldorf, somebody burned garbage on top of a memorial for a former synagogue.
Several cities and states in Germany have since upped their security and raised police presence in front of Jewish institutions, dpa reported.
In Berlin, some 100 people also assembled for a pro-Israel rally on Wednesday night in front of the city’s landmark Brandenburg Gate waving Israeli flags and holding a banner saying “We stand with Israel — Now and Forever.”


Asylum seekers released after Scotland deportation standoff

Updated 13 May 2021

Asylum seekers released after Scotland deportation standoff

  • Hundreds of locals protested a Home Office removal of asylum seekers, preventing immigration enforcers from carrying out the action
  • Politicians and charities slammed the Home Office’s attempt to deport asylum seekers believed to be Muslims on Eid

LONDON: Immigration authorities in Scotland have agreed to release two asylum seekers they had detained ahead of deportation after members of their local community protested and blocked their vehicle from leaving.

Early on Thursday people surrounded a Home Office vehicle in Glasgow, Scotland, believed to contain two immigrants who had been removed from a flat.

Hundreds of people gathered in the area, chanting slogans and preventing the van from moving safely. One man laid under the vehicle to prevent it from moving. Shouts of “Leave our neighbors, let them go” and “Cops go home” could be heard. 

Following an hours-long standoff, a senior Scottish police officer intervened to ensure the men were released and the standoff ended.

In a statement, Police Scotland Chief Superintendent Mark Sutherland announced the men had been released.

It said: “In order to protect the safety, public health and well-being of all people involved in the detention and subsequent protest in Kenmure Street, Pollokshields, Ch Supt Mark Sutherland has, following a suitable risk assessment, taken the operational decision to release the men detained by UK Immigration Enforcement back into their community meantime.”

The police had earlier stressed that it does not provide assistance with the removal of asylum seekers but aims to keep peace on the streets.

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon denounced the attempted deportation, branding it “dangerous” and “unacceptable.”

“I disagree fundamentally with Home Office immigration policy but even putting that aside, this action was unacceptable,” she wrote on Facebook. “To act in this way, in the heart of a Muslim community as they celebrated Eid, and in an area experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak was a health and safety risk.

“Both as MSP (Member of Scottish Parliament) and as FM (First Minister), I will be demanding assurances from the UK government that they will never again create, through their actions, such a dangerous situation. No assurances were given — and frankly, no empathy shown — when I managed to speak to a junior minister earlier.”

She added: “I am proud to represent a constituency and lead a country that welcomes and shows support to asylum seekers and refugees.”

Mohammad Asif, director of the Afghan Human Rights Foundation, was among the hundreds of neighbors protesting against the action.

“We are here against the hostile environment created by the Tories and the British state,” Asif said. “The same people who ran from British and American bombs are in the back of the van right now and are about to be deported.

“It is on Eid, you know. The guys are not even allowed to pray. How do you do that in a democratic society? It is a sad day.”


Macron’s party pulls support from woman in Muslim headscarf

Updated 13 May 2021

Macron’s party pulls support from woman in Muslim headscarf

  • Sara Zemmahi is shown in a campaign poster with a white headscarf before the June elections
  • While France bans Muslim headscarves in classrooms, they aren’t forbidden in the public space or on campaign posters

PARIS: France’s long-standing debate over the Muslim headscarf has landed in a local political race, giving it a national message, with a decision by President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist party to withdraw its backing for a candidate because she was pictured in a poster with her head covered.
“I’m frankly pained by the decision,” Mahfoud Benali, the lead candidate on the list for a district in the southern city of Montpellier, said Wednesday of the move by Macron’s party to refuse support for Sara Zemmahi, a quality engineer, from his list.
Zemmahi is shown in a campaign poster with a white headscarf before the June elections. She was on a work trip and not immediately available to comment, Benali said on a TV talk show on Channel 8.
While France bans Muslim headscarves in classrooms, they aren’t forbidden in the public space or on campaign posters.
However, Stanislas Guerini, head of Macron’s LREM party, told radio station RTL Tuesday that, nevertheless, the party wouldn’t back Zemmahi, one of four people in the poster.
“We consider that ostentatious religious signs don’t have their place on posters, whatever the religion,” Guerini said.
The poster for the June 20 and 27 local elections shows two men and two female candidates, including Zemmahi, under the sign “Different But United For You.” On the bottom, it notes the candidates stand for the “presidential majority.”
The decision, which drew criticism from some members of Macron’s own party, underscored the divisiveness of France’s long-standing debate on headscarves, and secularism, and how it may play out in politics before next year’s presidential vote. Macron is expected to try to renew his mandate, and, if so, could find himself in a repeat of the 2017 race, facing off against far-right leader Marine Le Pen.
It was a tweet of the poster by the No.2 official in Le Pen’s National Rally party, Jordan Bardella, that brought the issue into the public eye, along with his remark: “That’s the fight against separatism,” a reference to Macron’s priority effort to rid France of political Islam and extremists.
In a later tweet, Bardella said the Muslim headscarf is “contrary to all our values” and his National Rally party “will forbid it in public.” He was clearly making a reference to an eventual victory of Le Pen in next year’s presidential race.


Exclusion from US Census ‘weakens the Arab American voice,’ expert warns

Updated 13 May 2021

Exclusion from US Census ‘weakens the Arab American voice,’ expert warns

  • During a discussion on the Ray Hanania radio show, they said this lack of official recognition means the community misses out on many benefits
  • Currently the census does not allow people to identify as Arab or Middle Eastern; instead they are forced to identify themselves as white

Experts warned on Wednesday that the lack of recognition and inclusion in the US Census continues to undermine the strength of the Arab American community.

Because the demographics of their community are not precisely measured, Arabs in the US fail to benefit from more than $80 billion in Federal grants, and they are excluded from policies designed to enhance political representation, professor Edmund Ghareeb and researcher Matthew Jaber Stiffler said during a discussion broadcast live on the Ray Hanania radio show. Even their sense of community pride is undermined, they added.

Currently the census does not have an option that allows people to identify as Arab or Middle Eastern. Instead they are forced to identify themselves as white.

Ghareeb, an author and specialist on Arab American affairs, and Stiffler, who works with the Arab American National Museum in Detroit, agreed that this “census exclusion” is preventing Arab Americans from fully enjoying the benefits of life in America.

“The way race and ethnicity is collected on the census is directed by the Office of Management and Budget, and because of that it applies to all federal agencies,” said Stiffler, who also leads a national research initiative through the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS), the nation’s largest not-for-profit Arab American grassroots social-service agency.

 

“For instance at the office of Minority Health, which is a federal agency, Arab Americans cannot get grants to study the health of Arab Americans because we are not considered a minority — we are considered a part of the white community. It is not just the census, it is the fact that Arabs are not counted all across all of the government.”

 

Ghareeb, who has taught at the American University in Washington, Georgetown University and George Washington University, said the damage caused by this long-running failure of the census to recognize Arab ethnicity has been significant.

 

“The census is important primarily because, right now, Arab Americans are not able to participate as fully as other communities in getting government positions, for example, or support in the health area and the unemployment area,” he said.

 

“Of course, for some it is more important than that: it is the recognition and identity of your own community.”

Ghareeb and Stiffler identified a number of ways in which Arab Americans lose out because their ethnicity is not recognized by the census. They said, for example, that it affects the community’s political clout, access to federal funding, its sense of community pride, and leads to marginalization by mainstream businesses and industries, including the mainstream news media.

“It is really tough because it really impacts everything, from education to health to political representation,” Stiffler said. “The Arab American community does not see itself. We don’t even know how many of us there are. We have estimates but they range from 2.5 million to 4.5 million.

 

“So I think it is really about seeing us, and seeing us in the industries that we are in. We know Arab Americans are very entrepreneurial but if you go to all of the federal business indexes, Arab Americans are not listed as being a group that owns businesses. So it is really hard to see the impact that Arab Americans have made, if we are not counted.”

Ghareeb said part of the problem lies in the varied nature of the community itself, which includes people from 22 Arab nations but also reflects the sub-ethnicities within each country. He added that the community needs to become more active and more demanding of its rights.

“It’s important because of the politics as well, especially when it comes to foreign policy and what is going on in the region,” he said. “I think that when Arab Americans have a voice they will also have more of a voice to influence American foreign policy. All of these things are extremely important.”

 

As a topical example of a way in which Arabs are excluded from official consideration as a distinct community in the US, Stiffler cited the management of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In Southeast Michigan, ACCESS, the largest Arab American community non-profit, has given 20,000 doses of the COVID vaccine in the past few weeks,” he said.

“If you go onto the Michigan State dashboard — it would take some work but you could find this information — it says that of those 20,000 doses, two were (given to Arabs) because that is just the way (it is): it is very difficult to get Arabs identified in any of this data. So it looks like only two Arabs were vaccinated by ACCESS and not what was more likely 15,000.” 

 

Both experts said they favor a “MENA” category for identification, rather than “Arab,” because this would allow each individual Arab identity to be included. A MENA category has been considered as a category for ethnicity but its inclusion was stymied by lack of support from sitting presidents, who have the power to influence the contents of the census without seeking congressional approval.

Ghareeb noted that census categories for Asians and Southeast Asians were added as a result of presidential directives.

“There is no doubt that the Arab American community is losing some important benefits that other communities have achieved,” he added. “My preference based on what the science and the data tells us is right now is that MENA is the best category.

 

“And the way the census was going to do it was they were going to have MENA (as an option), but it was going to be a write-in option. You could put anything on that line — Iranian, Lebanese, Chaldean — and then they were going to count all of that. So not only would we get the MENA count but we would get the disaggregated counts of all these other ethnicities and nationalities so we would know who everybody is.

 

“It was going to be wonderful. Of course, that didn’t happen. But I think the broader the category, the better. Let people self-identify under that and we will count everybody that way.”

 

•  The Ray Hanania Show is broadcast in Detroit on WNZK AM 690 Radio and in Washington DC on WDMV AM 700 radio at 8 a.m. on Wednesday mornings. Hosted by the US Arab Radio Network and sponsored by Arab News, the leading English-language newspaper in the Middle East, the show is also streamed live at Facebook.com/ArabNews. The radio podcast is available at ArabNews.com/RayRadioShow.

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