The Muslim community held its annual Day of Dignity for Seattle-area homeless, a charitable event that participants say shows the true nature of the Islamic religion.
Ken Peterson arrived at the Millionair Club in Belltown at 6:30 a.m. Saturday to stand in line for a winter coat that doubles as a sleeping bag.
He wasn’t thinking that the organizers of the giveaway were Muslim or how the recent attacks in Paris prompted fears across the United States and led to calls for restrictions on refugees fleeing countries at war.
He was thinking about the hours he spends outdoors and in shelters, the coming winter and the dozens of people who die each year while living on the streets.
“You are not going to starve in Seattle if you are homeless,” said Peterson, 58, who was wearing a gray hoodie with a scarf and a Huskies baseball cap in the morning’s mid-30-degree temperatures. “But there is only so much you can do against the elements.”
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Peterson was one of more than 200 people who attended the Day of Dignity, an outreach program for Seattle’s homeless, organized for the last nine years by Aziz Junejo and Seattle’s Muslim community. For three hours Saturday, people who too rarely receive tender care got full attention: a meal, basic medical care, toiletries, massages and more.
In light of the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, and Friday’s more-than-seven-hour siege at a Mali hotel — incidents both attributed to Islamic extremists — Junejo and other volunteers said they hope people can still see Islam for what it really is: a peaceful religion.
“We have been in this country and our example speaks to who we are,” said Junejo, an organizer in the local Muslim community. “We shouldn’t have to apologize for people who don’t even follow their faith. These are just terrorists; they have nothing to do with Islam or Muslim.”
When the program started in 2006, Junejo and other founders called it Humanitarian Day, but in its third year they partnered with the national group Islamic Relief and began calling it Day of Dignity, which is a national event.
Islamic Relief provides tote bags and hygiene kits that include towels and toothpaste, but the rest of the event, which includes the coat distribution as well as breakfast, haircuts, medical services, acupuncture, toys for kids and Lifeline cellphones with prepaid minutes, is organized by local volunteers
This year the community raised $20,000 — up from about $13,000 — because many people at last year’s event responded in a survey that they needed sleeping bags. The coat/sleeping bags are more expensive than offering hoodies and long underwear, so they needed to increase the budget, Junejo said.
Because one of Islam’s five pillars is Zakat, which means charity or taking care of and giving to the poor, Junejo said he had no problem coming up with the money by reaching out to the Muslim community and Seattle-area mosques.
Some of the homeless people return year after year and recognize the Muslim volunteers. Peterson went for the first time last year and said he appreciates what the Muslim community is doing — especially this year with the coat, because it is actually something they can use, he said.
“It is a shame our politicians are condemning a whole group of people for the acts of a few crazy ones,” Peterson said. “They don’t have to organize this event, and we (the homeless) really appreciate things like this.”
On Saturday morning, Yazan Al-Salkini, 19, was stationed at the breakfast table, passing out burritos and water. Al-Salkini has been in the U.S. for two months. He is a refugee who lived in Jordan for three years after fleeing his home country of Syria.
Coming to the U.S. for a better life with his parents and three younger siblings, he said he is hurt that the images of Muslims and Syrian refugees are being based on the actions of ISIS, and he wants people to see what being Muslim is really about.
“DAISH (ISIS) does not represent Islam,” Al-Salkini said through a translator. “We want people to understand that there is a huge difference.”
Mohammad Abdulraheem, 20, a refugee from Iraq, has lived in Seattle for three years. He said he is disappointed in people’s reactions toward Muslims.
“We love humanity … we don’t discriminate,” he said. “Our religion taught us to love.”
He said he knows what it is like to be treated as different and to feel unaccepted when people see him or hear his name. “It is painful,” he said.
This is the second year he has volunteered for Day of Dignity, and he said that this year he wanted to help even more because of what is being said about Muslims now.
A 70-year-old woman, who didn’t want her name used, has been homeless for two months after she said she was kicked out of her South Park duplex when the owners went into foreclosure. She is staying at a shelter that doesn’t allow outside bedding, and she lined up outside the Millionair Club at 6 a.m. for one of the coat/sleeping bags in hopes of staying warm at night.
Before getting her coat, breakfast, a new phone and a massage, she said she was impressed the event was organized by the Muslim community.
“People need to see they are nonviolent people,” she said. “Just because [their religion] is different, it doesn’t mean they are the enemies.”