Everyday Heroes Serve Smiles

Today, I was asked to bring my camera and spend time at the Islamic Center of Southern California where I would be introduced to some real-life, everyday Muslim parents, students, professionals and, yes, heroes.

In the dining hall of the Islamic Center – in the heart of bustling Koreatown – a group of dedicated volunteers from all walks of life gather every Saturday morning. Without fanfare, their modest goal: to provide fresh and packaged foods without question to nearly 200 of the less fortunate in this neighborhood. A food pantry.

Surrounded by boxes of cereal, bottles of juice, packages of rice and nuts, fresh bread, canned vegetables and frozen chicken, volunteers organize tables and prepare themselves to humbly serve the community with love in their hearts and without an ounce of proselytization in their actions or words.

“Service to our neighbors can be a personal and simple antidote to all of the nonsense and mayhem we see in the world today.”

– Al Mamdani, Co-Director of the Food Pantry

The brainchild of former ICSC Religious Director Jihad Turk in 2005, the food pantry has been managed the past five years by the husband-wife duo of Al Mamdani and Dr. Karima Hirami. This amazing couple are heroes to many of the Korean and Hispanic immigrant and low-income families in the blocks around the ICSC.

To the volunteers, this is more than community service. It is an act of faith. According to Kristen Stangas, Communication Coordinator at the Islamic Center, a lot gets done in a very short amount of time. Typically, the food recipients (or “customers” as they are nobly referred to) are already lined up outside even before the volunteers arrive. The food, delivered by the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank in a distribution agreement with the Center, is removed from boxes and arranged on tables, much in the same way as an assembly line. Once the food is ready, Al and Karima get everyone in a circle and give the volunteers a pep talk before opening the doors.

The process is simple: The volunteers line up inside the dining hall near the rear door. As a customer comes in, they are assigned to a volunteer that takes their food bag or cart while the customer signs in. The timing is such that by the time the customer is done signing in, the volunteer meets them at the exit with their food. In many cases, a customer is in and out in less than a minute.

According to Al, the Center pays a nominal amount, but as a distribution arm for the Food Bank, the ICSC allocates on average 6,000 pounds of food – including 1,200 pounds of chicken – within two hours every Saturday.

“Service to our neighbors can be a personal and simple antidote to all of the nonsense and mayhem we see in the world today,” said Al.

Blog and photos by Tarik Trad