ICCNC: Over a month ago, almost 1200 sleeping bags were distributed to California’s homeless population by an Islamic organization, The Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California (ICCNC) working together with other organizations. This kind of act occurs infrequently. Islamic organizations in America, perhaps due to their minority status, mostly direct their activities and support towards a particular group of people who tend to be Muslim or from Muslim countries and less so toward social activism that benefits the public as a whole. For this reason, we sat down to talk with Mr. Hormoz Maghare’i about the sleeping bags program. Mr. Maghare’i is a familiar face because of his frequent philanthropy in Northern California. Previously, he was a regional executive at Toyota. He recently started his own company and on the side he is involved in a significant number of activities that help people as well as Islamic and Iranian community organizations.
Mr. Maghare’i! Will you explain how you first got the idea to distribute sleeping bags to California’s homeless population?
One evening I was at a party in the Iranian community when I saw a discussion taking place about the especially cold weather we had this winter in California. A group of people began expressing their sadness and grief for the homeless and how they can put up with the cold. Many other people wrote posts about this on Facebook and their posts all got lots of likes. They expressed so much pride for all the likes they got on Facebook that it was as if they had actually done something to help the homeless… I replied that expressing sadness and grief is good. It’s a kind of commiseration and it’s a way of showing our like-mindedness regarding a group of people that have a right to improve their lives. However, it’s literally the least we can do and it’s not enough and why don’t we get together and do something else?
Anything that involves action and would provide a measure of relief to a needy person. In fact, we Shi’a Muslims have a rule under the concept of justice that I have interpreted to mean that a society can claim to be just when social justice is also observed. In our Ancillaries of the Faith there are also the two practices of Tithe and Charity which show that the Prophet was aware of this issue because He commanded all Muslims to give a portion of their income to people in need. Thus, during the meeting I emphasized that liking posts on Facebook and feeling sorry isn’t sufficient and something should be done because last year in San Jose, California four homeless people froze to death. A charitable friend of mine who had previously partnered in philanthropic activities suggested that it would be a good idea to buy blankets for people because of how cold it was. I liked the idea, however modest it was. Then it occurred to me to swap blankets for sleeping bags because they are more functional and given the weather here they will last longer.
This began as an individual decision. What made you decide to get more people involved in the project and solicit help from Islamic organizations?
This project took on a community aspect on it’s own when attacks against Muslims and anti-Islam propaganda increased. That was when we emphasized focusing on the reaction to the project while we were working on it. Then we made the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California (ICCNC) our base of operations. I had met with the board of directors there two or three months earlier. It was from there that we tallied everything and then brought it up to other Islamic organizations to see if they were inclined to participate, such as the Saba Foundation, the Towhid Foundation, the Neekoo Philanthropic Society, and Imamia Medics International. Our goal was to see how much these Islamic organizations would participate. We had other goals that we put out in a statement. I can refer to some of them here:
1. This is a humanitarian action that helps to strengthen coexistence between people purely because they are human beings by means of providing this kind of support to the homeless.
2. Islamic organizations in the area can present a humanitarian aspect of themselves to the rest of the citizenry.
3. It can serve as a first step to cooperation between many Islamic organizations on social and humanitarian activities.
4. It exhibits an image of assistance and cooperation in Islamic groups and organizations in America who have lately witnessed Islamophobia being promoted by opposition groups and even political players at the highest levels of American government.
What was your original goal as far as the number of sleeping bags you wanted to purchase and distribute?
Myself and a friend of mine who prefers that I don’t refer to him by name expected to purchase and distribute 1000 sleeping bags to which 150 more were later added. We imported sleeping bags from China at $15 each bag.
Did you run into any problems when you handed them out?
We had absolutely no problems. Over a span of five to ten hours 1000 sleeping bags were distributed. In fact, prior to that 150 of the sleeping bags that had been imported by air were handed out in Sacramento over the course of two days. The number of homeless in Sacramento is one of the highest in America and certainly one of the highest in California.
What kind of feedback did you receive?
It was indescribable. We didn’t believe that people in America would be so supportive. Meanwhile, several large California-based publications and one national newspaper (The San Francisco Chronicle) report on the event. In addition, the number of young Iranians Muslims who helped distribute was encouraging and goes to show that the young Muslim community (especially Iranians) who studied in American schools have a clearer and more contemporary understanding of volunteerism. One of the elementary school students who attends Andeeshe Farsi School each Saturday said that the event “got me to feel my Muslim and Iranian identity and to hold my head a bit higher and to tell my friends and classmates that we Muslims work side by side with Americans on social and humanitarian projects.” Last week, many of these same youths came in offering suggestions on further summer projects so that the homeless can have access to a bath so they can be protected from summertime insects.
The first point is religion, which we as Iranians who are American citizens feel we must articulate to our fellow citizens. Moreover, as an Iranian I myself that a human must pass through three stages in his or her life to be worthy of the name. To quote Saadi:
A person’s body is noble to the body of humanity
Beautiful clothing does not signify humanity
The first stage is a stage that I refer to by the name personal interest. At this stage, everybody is pursuing their own interest and they shouldn’t stop at this stage. As soon as this initial need is circumvented they move on to the second stage which is called social standing. It is a good thing that people aspire to a better position for themselves in society, though stopping at this stage does not depict a human’s aspiration. There is still the third stage, kindness. A person looks beyond his or her own self and possessions and tries to have other people in mind, like the story of the aesthete and the scholar, a moral tale in chapter two of the great Saadi’s Golestan (the morals of the Dervishes). It occurred to me as an explanation of these same differences that appear to me to be a sort of civility and kindness. Meaning, a person should be cognizant of why he or she is looking beyond their own life and material possessions and time to provide assistance and kindness to others. After telling the tale, Saadi explains the difference between the aesthete and the scholar and says that the scholar has others in mind while the aesthete thinks only of himself.