My first encounter with Omar Salha, the Founder & Director of Ramadan Project, was at football practice for the SOAS 1st Men’s Football team in early October of 2013. By playing numerous matched alongside Omar over the course of the football season, I have grown in my admiration for his abilities on the pitch and his leadership skills. As a starting central-midfielder he demonstrated great vision for the field and his ability to understand the strategic components of the game. Therefore, it did not surprise me that he spearheaded the Ramadan Tent Project.
I did not have the privilege of attending Ramadan Tent last year as I was out of town, but this year I had the pleasure of attending on five or six occasions. As you enter into the lush Sunken Garden on Malet Street you will find a table of friendly volunteers, one of whom is Omar’s younger brother Ousama. Towards your left is the iconic white tent where you will find a team of volunteers wearing purple t-shirts, working in harmony to prepare the food for the 200 guests that attend daily. The atmosphere is tranquil and hospitable. Indicative of this are the diverse faces, clothing attire, and accents from all around the world that you will find engaged in conversation. This is truly reflective of the values of SOAS as an institute and the larger community in London. The guests will be seated beside rows of white sheets which have water bottles, dates and fruit placed upon them. The call to prayer begins, which indicates that it is time to break fast, the garden quiets down to a murmur as the fasting guests break their fast by eating dates and drinking water.
I sat down with my friend Omar last week to discuss his experience with the Ramadan Tent Project.
1. What was the motivation to start the Ramadan Tent Project?
The initial idea was to provide international Muslim students in London with a place to celebrate Ramadan and recreate family spirit, while at the same time allowing them to practice charity during the holiest month of the Islamic calendar. Against the 2011 riots in London, the second objective was also to show young Muslims are active and engaged within their community and to combat stereotypes which have become widespread at this point.
2. What are the goals for the Project?
Coverage of Islam or of Muslims is generally not presented or represented by Muslims themselves in the UK, hence why certain stereotypes are expressed. Other than the two goals mentioned above, the last one is to create a platform for Muslims to speak about themselves with their own voices.
3. What role does Islam play in this motivation?
As a Muslim our faith teaches us to remember those less fortunate than us, to invite the homeless and the poor and not turn them away; to say a good word, to smile, to safeguard our environment and above all else to keep peace and good relations between people. As this is part of my identity, Islam plays an integral role in my life and the motivation behind Ramadan Tent Project.
4. How has studying at SOAS influenced your decision to start the Ramadan Tent Project?
The diversity of backgrounds at SOAS, both in Muslim and non-Muslim groups, and the effortless way in which groups interact with themselves made me want to reproduce these regular and enriching exchanges in an environment outside of university and in the wider society/community.
5. What has been the most difficult challenge you’ve faced with the project?
Having volunteers follow orders and not rebel! No really joke aside, the challenge has definitely been to ensure funding would be found to support the vision and future projects. We have been blessed to receive sponsorship by the Muslim World League & Nadi Park Royal, but also by individual donors and organisations.
6. What has been the best experience you’ve had with the project?
So far the most humbling experience was when a Kuwaiti couple came to visit after having watched a report about the Ramadan Tent Project on TV. They told us they had called Kuwait and half of their contacts in London to know where we were located before coming. And here they were in front of us, an elderly sick man and his fragile wife, who could not even stay for iftar but wanted to see us and support us. That was a very special moment and one of the best Ramadan Tent Project memories for 2014. However, it must be said, every day is a great experience.
7. What advice do you give to young students when it comes to community initiatives?
Do not be afraid to do, what you believe will transform communities for the best. Reach out to friends and family for help. Surround yourself with good, kind-hearted individuals.
I have invited various sets of friends, Muslim and non-Muslim, to break our fast or share a meal at the Ramadan Tent. I would highly recommend for you to do the same before Ramadan ends in the next few days. Insha’allah (God Willing) you will be able to partake in the community spirit at Ramadan Tent.
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