Herald News

Asking people for money doesn’t come easy to Yousef Abdallah.

But during the month of Ramadan, the northeast regional director of Totowa-based Islamic Relief, an international aid charity, zips up and down the East Coast, fundraising at mosques, universities and iftar dinners (to break the daily Ramadan fast) in private homes.

Tradition and belief provide him help: Muslims are obligated to tithe an annual 2.5 percent of their assets, including stocks, jewelry and non-residential property, to the poor. During Ramadan, this almsgiving, called zakah, receives extra merit in God’s eyes. As the third pillar of Islam, zakah, which means to purify, has a deep spiritual meaning: a kind of tax paid to God, whom believers say is the source of all their good fortune. Giving also serves as a social lubricant. The act of sharing connects the haves and have-nots. As Muslims fast during Ramadan, their empathy for the poor is heightened. Islamic Relief nets more than half of its annual donations during the Holy Month alone, says Abdallah.

After Sept. 11, 2001, Muslim-Americans became more vigilant about selecting the recipients of their giving. Several U.S.-based Muslim charities, including the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, which had a Paterson office, were accused by federal officials of funding terrorist organizations. Last October, the Holy Land case ended with a mistrial in U.S. District Court, and acquittal on most charges. Federal prosecutors reopened the case last week in Dallas.


Amid such scrutiny of Muslim charities, Islamic Relief, a British-based organization, has emerged as a model nonprofit, providing relief across the globe from war-torn Sudan to hurricane-ravaged cities in the U.S. It has forged interfaith partnerships that include extensive ties with Mormons on the West Coast. Charity Navigator, an independent monitor of charities, ranked the organization among the top 4 percent among thousands of U.S. charities for its performance and efficient use of funds.

Zaher Barkawi, a mortgage broker in Totowa and a regular donor to Islamic Relief, says he performs more background checks on charities these days: “Definitely, 9/11 made me more aware of where I give. I do some due diligence.”

Faten Ewais, of Cliffside Park, says she used to donate to several Muslim charities, including the now-defunct Holy Land Foundation. “Before, it seemed you could give to several organizations, no questions asked.”

These days, she targets her giving to Islamic Relief because of its international recognition for directly administering its relief programs. She recalls a story that Abdallah told recently at her mosque, regarding a trip to Egypt and his visit to an Islamic Relief site. He spoke of a single mother of four who lived near the banks of the Nile and was so poor that she didn’t even have stale bread to eat or money to send the children to school. The woman reluctantly married off one of her teenage daughters to lessen the family’s financial burden.

“To see him get that affected,” Ewais said, “it’s very convincing.”

Abdallah says traveling to the countries most in need of assistance — Sudan, Niger, Pakistan and Palestine — boosts his commitment to his mission. “You feel the need when you visit these countries,” he says. “When you see kids crying, that actually gives you the courage (to fundraise).”

During Ramadan, his schedule is packed, booking appointments at mosques from Boston to Pennsylvania. After delivering a presentation at the Islamic Center of Passaic County (ICPC) earlier this month, at the beginning of Ramadan, he raised $95,000. A lofty sum from a single mosque, but down about $40,000 from last year due to the troubled economy, he says, and the timing of the holiday. Ramadan fell on the heels of summer this year, so fewer people may have attended mosque, preferring to enjoy the daylight, he speculated.

ICPC leaders say they are approached every year by dozens of charities soliciting donations during Ramadan services. The organization’s formal application and vetting process, however, eliminates all but 10 or so groups.

Mazooz Sehwail, an office manager at ICPC, says he checks the nonprofit status and licensing of every organization. He has noticed congregants becoming more relaxed about giving recently, because federal authorities and the general public are better educated about the principles of zakah. “We have more interfaith dialogue,” Sehwail says. “Zakah is being explained to politicians and FBI officials.”

Most Muslims give well beyond the 2.5-percent baseline, he says, but are discouraged from discussing or bragging about their donations. “Your pure intention should be to help others,” he says.

Madiha Katao of Clifton likes to keep her giving close to home. At the end of Ramadan, Muslims give an extra donation to purify their fast and make up for possible errors made that month. This donation, called the zakah al-fitr, should amount to the sum needed to feed one person. Katao plans to donate $120 — the amount it takes to feed her family of six — to a friend with a troubled marriage and difficulty paying bills. The donation is made casually. After prayer services, she will simply slip her friend an envelope.

Other community members hand her their zakah al-fitr donations, trusting that she will find a worthy recipient.

“No harm is done,” she says. “It’s God’s provision, taking it from the hands of a rich person. It’s the right of that (poor) person to receive.”