Em Abdo and her children were spending Eid amid dust and trees in a Syrian camp for displaced families. Gone were the days when she could buy them new clothes for Eid and take them somewhere fun. It didn’t feel much like a holiday.
There was only one thing that made it feel like Eid, and that was cooking meat for her children.
“It reminds us of early days and Eids when my husband used to get meat and we’d call our families to gather,” she said.
For a few days, the children could smell the aroma of meat cooking again, and feel full in the way their normal meals didn’t make them feel. They laughed and played, and the reality of the refugee camp could fade away. Just a little bit, it felt like the old days.
“It has been a long time since they ate any meat,” she said. “They eat it on Eid only.”
That’s a theme Islamic Relief staff hear over and over again each year on Eid al-Adha as they distribute the meat — known as Qurbani or Udhiyah — given by Islamic Relief USA donors.
The Qurbani program is one of Islamic Relief USA’s seasonal food programs. It’s a Muslim tradition to share meat with people in need on Eid al-Adha, so this program follows the holiday on the lunar calendar, moving about 11 days earlier each year. In 2016, it fell in September, and Islamic Relief USA distributed meat to families in 33 countries, reaching about a quarter of a million people. The distribution locations include cities across the United States, and — as with all of Islamic Relief USA’s programs — it’s available to people of all faiths and backgrounds.
“Today is very happy,” a Virginia mosque staff member said as the program began last year. She was excited to be able to give meat to low-income community residents, who lined up speaking English and Spanish, Arabic and Farsi to collect their packages.
The Qurbani program is part of a multifaceted approach to reducing hunger. Islamic Relief USA distributes food in emergencies, while helping families build secure livelihoods so they no longer have to rely on food assistance. Some of these livelihood development projects offer vocational training and assistance starting businesses, while others help farming communities irrigate their land and plant drought-resistant crops.
While the Qurbani program is not one of the long-term solutions, it offers a special nutritional boost that the recipients greatly look forward to. For many, it’s literally the only time they eat meat all year.
In Afghanistan a few years ago, as local staff interviewed program participants, a widow named Marzia couldn’t answer a question about the cost of meat, because she never bought it anymore. She only had meat on Eid through this program.
In Indonesia, the 2015 follow-up survey listed the same response over and over: “Only eats meat at Qurbani time.”
A Syrian refugee named Noor told Islamic Relief staff last year: “When we were in Syria, we used to eat meat every week. But now we haven’t eaten meat since last Eid. Who has money to buy meat?”
Nearby, a young refugee girl named Laila described the effect of the gift: “It gives nutrition to our body and strengthens us,” she said.
Maybe most valuable of all is the psychological effect.
Last year, Em Abdo smiled in the dusty refugee camp, and her children played and laughed as they cooked their Eid meat. The smoke rose, and the tantalizing scent of cooking meat filled the air.
“They are happy as they have meat to eat,” she said.
And seeing them so happy made her happy too.