Philadelphia family helps people break their fast during Ramadan

(From left) Anas Dabbour, Abbulah Ibrahim, and Munir Odeh work in an assembly line to create boxes of fish, chicken, and lamb dinners at the Al Amana Grocery on May 20, 2019. Dabbour's family established the grocery in 1993, after emigrating from Syria in 1992. (Rachel Wisniewski for WHYY)

(From left) Anas Dabbour, Abbulah Ibrahim, and Munir Odeh work in an assembly line to create boxes of fish, chicken, and lamb dinners at the Al Amana Grocery on May 20, 2019. Dabbour's family established the grocery in 1993, after emigrating from Syria in 1992. (Rachel Wisniewski for WHYY)

By the time the last rays of the setting sun illuminate the facade of the Al-Aqsa Islamic Society in Olde Kensington, Dalal Dabbour has been cooking for six hours. She says she’s not hungry, although she is observing the rules of Ramadan, which require the faithful to fast from dawn to dusk each day of the month-long holiday.

She “lost [her] appetite being around food all day.” Her husband Amer and sons, Jawad and Anas, join her in the kitchen of the family’s business, Al Amana Grocery. They’ve all been working since 2 p.m., stirring food on the stove, spooning rice and beans into takeout containers, and filling hundreds of Styrofoam cups with lentil soup.

Amer Dabbour (left) and his wife, Dalal (center) work to prepare 200 meals for Ramadan on May 20, 2019. The Dabbours own Al Amana Grocery, a shop, restaurant, and book store inside the Al-Aqsa Islamic Society. For six years, Al Amana has provided free meals each night of Ramadan thanks to a private donation. (Rachel Wisniewski for WHYY)

 

A meal of chicken, rice, beans, and salad is freshly prepared at the Al Amana Grocery. Thanks to an anonymous donation, Al Amana offers a choice of fish, chicken or lamb to anyone who is breaking their fast during Ramadan. (Rachel Wisniewski for WHYY)

 

Amer Dabbour (left) cuts pita bread into quarters while his son, Jawad, fills cups of lentil soup. Dabbour’s family has owned the Al Amana Grocery since 1993. Since 2013, they have provided free meals for up to 350 community members who are breaking their fast during Ramadan. (Rachel Wisniewski for WHYY)

 

The Al-Aqsa Islamic Society is seen at dusk on May 20, 2019, the thirteenth day of Ramadan. Al-Aqsa contains a private school, mosque, and the Al Amana grocery store, located at the back of the building, which provides free meals for up to 350 people each night of Ramadan. (Rachel Wisniewski for WHYY)

On a Monday evening, they are cooking for an expected group of 200, a lower turnout than usual. They often receive up to 350 guests. Now, as the sun is about to set, they methodically prepare to feed the masses.

Amer and Dalal Dabbour immigrated to the United States from Syria in 1992, at which point Amer’s brother established the Al Amana Grocery at the rear of the Al-Aqsa Islamic Society. The business began as an “empty warehouse” but, over the years, has grown to include a grocery, restaurant, and bookstore. Amer took over the business in 2003, and his family has worked there ever since, offering some of the best falafel and hummus in the city.

The Dabbour family began to offer meals during Ramadan after an anonymous donor gave them the means to do so six years ago. Since then, they have been providing three-course dinners, free of charge, to anyone who wishes to join them. The diners are mostly practicing Muslims who pray at the Al-Aqsa mosque, but neighbors and the homeless who wish to join are never turned away. The dinner also draws local politicians, including former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, who joined them for Ramadan during his time in office.

“We’re all family here, [so] we can’t turn anyone away… if we have food, we have to give it,” said Anas Dabbour, who views the practice as his God-given duty.

Anas Dabbour brings out boxes of food as the sun sets. Dabbour’s parents own the Al Amana Grocery inside the Al-Aqsa Islamic Society, which provides free meals to community members each evening of Ramadan. (Rachel Wisniewski for WHYY)

As the clock strikes 8:13 p.m., the precise time of sunset on Monday, May 20, everyone leaps into action. The voice of the mosque’s Imam comes over the loudspeaker, calling community members to join him in the second to last round of prayer for the day.

While members of the local Muslim community begin to file into the mosque, Anas and his brother Jawad set up servings of milk and dates, takeout boxes of food, and cups of soup in the grocery’s shared parking lot. Anas admits that he wishes he could join the call to prayer, but pointing to the sky, says that he “hopes [he] will be forgiven, given what [his] family is doing for the community.”

Members of the Al-Aqsa Islamic Society enter the mosque as they are called to prayer on the evening of May 20, 2019. Following the prayer, all are invited to break their fast by enjoying a meal provided by the Al Amana Grocery. (Rachel Wisniewski for WHYY)

The prayers are quick and, when they are finished, people immediately line up for their choice of homemade chicken, fish, or lamb accompanied by rice, beans, soup and salad. There is a separate table offering chicken fingers and French fries for the children.

The four members of the Dabbour family and two volunteers serve their customers efficiently and happily and, before long, the tables in the parking lot are filled with people sharing food and conversation. Still, the Dabbours stay vigilant, making sure that everyone is attended to until the last call to prayer, just before 10 p.m. Anas says that it will be near midnight when the family gets to eat anything themselves before driving back to their home in Northeast Philadelphia, only to repeat the process the following morning. The fasting month of Ramadan ends at sunset on June 3 and is followed by the Eid al-Fitr festival.

Members of the Al-Aqsa Islamic Society enjoy milk and dates to break their fast as the sun sets on May 20, 2019. During the month of Ramadan, Muslims are obligated to fast every day from dawn to sunset. (Rachel Wisniewski for WHYY)

 

Munir Odeh (left) serves a meal to Yusef Jordan, a New York native in town for business, who visited the Al-Aqsa Islamic Society to celebrate Ramadan. About 200 people lined up to receive meals, (Rachel Wisniewski for WHYY)

 

The Alfayad family breaks their fast for Ramadan with meals provided by the Al Amana Grocery. (Rachel Wisniewski for WHYY)

 

As the sun sets, Muslims sit down to break their fast at shared tables in the parking lot of the Al-Aqsa Islamic Society. (Rachel Wisniewski for WHYY)

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