Crossing Devon Avenue, walking up to the Muslim Women Resource Center, my first thought was that the organization had somehow convinced the Grocery & Meat Market to let them camp out in a corner of their store, as the two entities share the same green sign.
The truth is even more surprising.
“The store is our social enterprise,” said Sima Quraishi, executive director of the MWRC. “We’ve been running Muslim Women Resource Center for the past 15 years. Two years ago, when the governor cut down the budget, we decided that we should do something to make some money so we don’t have to lose our staff. This is what we came up with. Giving back to the community. Our main goal is to sell to the community and also hire community members.”
The market looks like your standard, small, ethnic city grocery. A haphazard assemblage of items from floppy bags of fresh naan to bottles of frozen camel’s milk. A variety of chutney and some enigmatic items, such as bags labeled “Broken Sugar.”
I was visiting because Ramadan — the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and a time of spiritual renewal — was beginning sometime this weekend. (Don’t ask exactly when because it’s complicated “We don’t know,” said a staffer at the Chicago office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, suggesting I survey a few mosques and gather their opinions.)
While Ramadan, whenever it began, is associated in the non-Muslim mind primarily with dawn-to-dusk fasting, as well as abstaining from sex and tobacco, giving charity is also important— fasting and charity are two of the “five pillars” of Islam.
“This is zakat,” said Quraishi, using a word that literally means “purification,” showing off one of the 25 food baskets that the MWRC is giving away to needy families at Ramadan, since fasting during the day makes Iftar, the after-dark meal, which occurs at a stomach-rumbling 8:17 p.m. now and creeps even later as the month progresses, all the more important.
Quraishi, a refugee from Afghanistan who came to Chicago as a child, said a store was necessary because supporting social service networks is something new for many Muslims.
“Members of the Muslim community tend to give donations to the mosques, as well as send it overseas to their family members,” she said. “They don’t understand the meaning of social service and how they could donate back. We don’t have so many social service organizations in the Middle East. They don’t understand the concept. So we decided we should do something the community could benefit from. People all need to buy food. They need to shop. The difference between our stores and other stores is the profit goes 100 percent to the organization.”‘
I wondered whether nearby groceries objected to the opening of a competing store, no matter how well-intentioned.
“At the beginning, they were a little bit worried, it was a little bit difficult for them” she said, noting that a promise to keep their prices in line with everyone else’s helped. “But now they’re absolutely fine. Now, they understand.”
With Donald Trump having slid into office on skids greased by anti-Muslim rhetoric, I wondered whether she had seen any changes over the past four months. Are Chicagoans infected by the spirit of intolerance on display in Washington? Just the opposite.
“We don’t see that much of a problem,” she replied. “There has been a lot of support from the non-Muslim community since January. We have been receiving so many calls asking how to support us, receiving letters. We also receive donations from non-Muslim community. It was very surprising to us. Sometimes, they even send us flowers for a Mother’s Day event or at Christmas time. Also, we receive a lot of support from universities, from schools.
“The majority are non-Muslim, faith-based. They call to ask us to speak about Islam and our culture so they learn more. As a citizen of this country and a former refugee, the most important thing for all of us, Muslims and non-Muslim, is to work together and communicate. The more we communicate, it will be easier on all of us.”