This interview was a great opportunity to talk to Muhammad Yaseen (Director of Youth Services, Karimia Institute), one of the most articulate people to guest on the BFTF radio show about a recent project in which Karimia Institute had run a campaign in the Muslim community to raise money for Emmanuel House charity. Here's the discussion which took a few fascinating detours along the way…

BFTF : Welcome to the show Yaseen! To start off, could you give a small clue about what Emmanuel House is and the project that Karimia has been involved in.

MY : Well, I first came across Emmanuel House when I was working for the local authority. I used to work at Carlton Street for the Youth Service. I used to run the “Youth Shop”. Carlton Street is the street that runs directly behind Nottingham City Council building in the square and it you go over the top of the hill and drop down as though you were heading towards the Victoria Market, you come across EH right at the bottom of the hill where the traffic lights are…

It's an old fifties-sixties kind of building and I remember always seeing people who looked homeless in fact. You could tell that some of them were alcoholics, some of them would have been just very shabbily dressed and they would be hovering outside this building.

Having said that, I think there may be some listeners out there that might be able to reflect on the principle of helping people who are homeless, people who are poor, people who are needy. We come across this all the time. When I was last in Pakistan, people would go to a darbar(shrine), they would give, they would volunteer, donate money, a goat or something. So I don't think it is an alien concept to look after people who are hungry, who are poor. But to do it in this country, that is a departure.The reason I got to know about this project at least 10-15 years ago, was because every time we used to do events at our premises in the Youth Shop for young people, we would have food and other things left behind at the end of the event. Some of the volunteers used to say “shall we just take this stuff down to Emmanuel House?”. Well, it did occur to me one time to say “Well, I'll take it down with you” just to find out what this place was and when I went down I realised that it was essentially an advice and support type service for people who were homeless and then I realised who all these people were that were standing outside waiting to go into this building. They obviously had a timetable for when they had to go in. And essentially, that was my first introduction to Emmanuel House. But I didn't know what the service was, in terms of who it was organised by, why there were volunteers there. And it wasn't until Dr. Musharraf called me and said that through the Christian-Muslim Forum, a request has come to see if the Muslim community might support this organization which is meeting the needs of people who are homeless in the city of Nottingham, that I realised that there was a connection on the other side with the churches. So I think their church is supportive of the work that they are doing. This is slight departure from the type of routine work that Muslims would tend to get involved with.

What's happened with Emmanuel House is that with these current financial cutbacks that the local authority has decided that it was going to make some cuts to Emmanuel House's budget – and these were really significant, they were to the bone to be honest. There was some sense that the whole of the operation helping homeless in Nottingham might collapse and their Chief Executive decided that she would start a local campaign to see if she could generate community support for it. Their (the community's) initial responses were that people would come in with tins of money, children would come in with piggy banks and that's when they realised that actually the community is very supportive of supporting people who are really vulnerable and likely to get into even more trouble, at worst, die on the streets of Nottingham City. So they approached Karimia Institute and said “Do you think the Muslim community would support this?”. I think that is a really big challenge. On the one hand I thought it was quite cheeky that the churches, who are so wealthy, would have the gall to ask the Muslim community “Would you like to support something that we are supporting?”.

But after I had thought about it, you know, who are the beneficiaries? Is the church the beneficiary here, or is it the people? And whom are we supporting? Are we supporting the church or are we supporting the people? It wasn't very difficult for me to conclude that our intention is the most important thing. So what is our intention? It is to help people to safeguard themselves, to help them get out of poverty, to get a roof over their heads and to feed people as well. So when I met with their marketing manager, she asked me how the Muslim community would view supporting a charity like theirs. I said that frankly, we have a very great spirit of feeding people who are hungry and that would be a really excellent mission and something that I think Muslims would feel empathy for. And if there was anything we would want to support. So I kinda narrowed it down a bit because I thought that I wouldn't feel comfortable about seeing my donation propping up the churches work, as it were, and there mission. I wouldn't want it to be seen in that way, if I was going to help people I would want to help people who are really in need.

Joe and a volunteer in the kitchen

To help your neighbour is important, They have rights over us so we have a responsibility to them and, in the same way, people who are living in Nottingham on the streets, they are our neighbours. We walk past them, drive past them, sometimes taxi drivers will see them lying in the street. These people are our neighbours. We have a responsibility, as Muslims, to do something about that.

With the support of Zameer from Radio Dawn, we decided to launch a small campaign to support them. We were very keen to make sure that we supported the aspect of work which was going to have the greatest impact. It is admirable that all those people (who donated) looked beyond the initial thing that they saw, which was a white non-Muslim charity that was doing work, to the people that it was going to benefit.

I remember my father telling me that Christianity did well because they gave the Bible with one hand and bread with the other. You show humanity when you feed people, you show that you care for people – and if you can show that you care for people you can influence their perception of what you are and what you believe, and maybe that is one of the ways we can bring people to Islam.

This project is not the first time I have come across this practice. When I was a student in Bradford University, I was cajoled by some of my student colleagues into doing some volunteering that would “blow my mind”. They took me to an underground hall of a church and in the underground part of the church and when I went inside, Lo and Behold, there were all these Muslims who were cooking and preparing food and I asked “What is going on here?” and they replied “Well, the church is allowing us to have this space so that we can feed homeless people” and that was for me the first shock – I anticipated that I would see white non-Muslim people walking through with a tray, with food, picking up an apple and some fruit and going back to a table and eating. And the number of Pakistani people, men and women walking through – and I could tell that they weren't people who had homes, they were genuinely homeless, you could tell from their dress. Some had mental health problems, that was very apparent, and it dawned on me that I was feeding people here that were not just Muslims but there were other people as well.

I was just given an apron and told, put the food on the platter, smile, give them some water and let them pass by. And after one hour of doing that I was asked to take my apron off and pass it to the person who was walking through the door. What they had was a rota for three hours and a local businessman, who has a relationship with Nottingham as well, was located in Bradford was sponsoring this and paying for the food to be served every single Thursday evening.

So that was really my first experience of actually feeding people, so when I heard about other brothers in Nottingham wanting to do the same, I can support that 100%. For an hour a week, to make that much impact on that many people's lives who were walking through, was the backdrop for what I was seeing that needed to be done with Emmanuel House.I was dragged in as a student to do this one hour and after that I used to go back every Thursday and I did that for six-seven months. That work in Bradford is still continuing today.

That's one of the things I've tried to implement with many of the things done here at Karimia Institute. Things like the Scouts, I'm asking volunteers to come forward and I'm saying to them, “Give one hour a week. Don't give me two, I don't want two, just give me one. Just come here, do something good, enjoy yourself working with young people, making a difference in their lives and go home feeling like you have actually done something. If everybody just gave me one hour, I'd be a lucky bloke!

Why not volunteer a day to help the scouts?

BFTF : Regarding the fact the some people may say that we need to help our community first. It's not an either/or, you can do two things at once. It's like saying that we shouldn't have gone to the Moon because we should have solved hunger on earth, but I don't think that if we had not gone to the Moon, the problems of hunger would have been solved. What would be your perception on that viewpoint ?

MY : I think that one of the issues with people saying that we should do something for our own is that what they don't realize is that there is a ripple effect. And things happen to us as a consequence of we not taking responsibility. For example, if we had taken responsibility over CFC's, we wouldn't have damaged the ozone layer – and the damage to the ozone layer affects not just Muslims, it affects everybody so to do something about that is important. Similarly there are plenty of examples where, you have someone who is so desperate that they might be forced to rob somebody and somebody might get hurt there. Now, if they weren't so desperate, because they had had a meal in their belly that evening, they might not need to have to do that. It's often the case that people say “It's not going to happen to me” until it happens to you and then it's like “Why did this happen to me?” and the reason is that globally, as a community, we failed to do something. And so I think that feeding people who are homeless, who have no home, no food, no livelihood, no work, no place that they can use as an address, can't get access to benefits – are basically completely detached. Well, those people are human being and they are going to want to fulfil some of their basic desires and that might be getting money from somewhere. Somebody could get held up, somebody could get injured, somebody could be killed – and if that outcome happened because we didn't feed somebody, that's our responsibility.

BFTF : Can you give a little more detail on what Emmanuel House does?

MY : Well they do all sorts of advice. Essentially, when you walk through the door they provide you with a free meal, access to a nurse to deal with any injuries you may have sustained and they arrange for you to have a roof over your head. They will also wash your clothes so that you can put some clean clothes back on. These are the very foundation stones of decency in our society.

Our campaign was not about the whole of the Emmanuel House organization, we felt that the best thing that we could do was to feed those people who are hungry and that that would be an excellent thing to do. And that is essentially what we have done, we fund raised quite a large amount of money for them and that money is going to be dedicated to spending on food for people who are homeless.

We raised about £6000, but they need a lot more than that, their target spend – just on food, is around £13,000. I think this is the first time that the Muslim community and the Christian community have collaborated on a programme like this and consequently it's clear that the Muslim community are prepared to put their hands in their pockets and are prepared to see beyond the structural differences between the communities, see through that fog to the people who really matter who are those lonely souls walking around on the streets during the day thinking about where they are going to sleep that night.

Imagine if this was your bedroom every evening…

BFTF : If people are interested in this project, how can they donate?

MY : They can send a check to Emmanuel House directly, or they can send it to us at Bobbers Mill Community Centre and we will forward it to them. Or the same thing can be done via a cash donation.

BFTF : What has been the response from the Non-Muslim community, the churches etc.?

MY : I don't think they expected us to come forward as we did and, as always, when Muslims rise to the challenge, people are astounded. If anything, we have demonstrated that we are not easily put into a box. Muslims are much more globally thinking, they are charitable, we are very, very generous compared to many other communities. We both look after our own community and we are prepared to look after other communities. In some ways it is a really valuable lesson to give to people who are non-Muslims because where they have had stereotypes about the Muslim community, about us being insular, not interested in other people, wanting to live parallel lives – that is not the case. I think we are part of our community, part of the city of Nottingham. We reflect both an eagerness to support people who are vulnerable, who are homeless, we are at the front-line.

No-one should be under the impression that Muslim communities are only interested in themselves or that they do not have any part to play in British society. British Muslims are interested in everybody in this country, as we are for people overseas as well.

Some people may think that Muslims are only interested in foreign affairs, well this is a really good example of how we are interested in home affairs – very close to home affairs in fact.

BFTF : BFTF often seen individual Muslims working in a whole range of voluntary organizations, but what is unusual is to see a Muslim Organization stepping forward to work with the wider society.

MY : What we have done here is to trail-blaze for other Muslim organizations in the city. We can demonstrate that we have an interest in helping people and we are building bridges and links with other organizations and I think there is a level of respectability that comes from this as well. Rather than us always being seen, dare I say it, terrorists or radicals and extremists in society, what we can be seen as is humanitarian people who think about their neighbor, who think about other people around them and can appropriately respond when needed.

I hope very much that anybody who contributed to the campaign, whether they were givers or supporters, will realize that when we are talking about working with people who are vulnerable, we have vulnerable people in our own community. We have people who are getting into drugs or alcohol, we have young people going to prison – at one of the fastest rates of any community in the UK and there is very little understanding of why we should be sympathetic to their needs. It's almost like “they have brought it on themselves, so they should pay for it” – but we forget that when these people come out of prison, their behaviour and what they do in society is likely to have an impact on us. So if you get burgled and you find that it was someone on drugs, you may also find out that that person may have been a Muslim. So when we talk about supporting people who are drug addicts in our community, people should not turn their noses up at it and think “That's their own fault”. . . How do we respond to ALL vulnerabilities in our community? Should we be open handed with them? Should we think about supporting those causes?

Because there are so many of those (causes) but the Pakistani and Muslim communities does not tend to focus on them. But this one campaign with Emmanuel House has, I think, demonstrated that there is a soft spot, a soft underbelly within the Muslim community that is prepared to look at that.

BFTF : What are your plans for the future of this project?

MY : Emmanuel House are the drivers and what they asked us to do was to support them with their campaign and that is essentially what we have done. Karimia does not have any plans to set up feeding services and I think this is primarily because this was our first trial run at seeing what the community is likely to be interested in doing.

For the future, an idea would be to put people on the street, we are already working with Radford Road Police Station to look at some of the issues with Muslim Youth in Forest Fields, there have been so many complaints and so many arrests carried out of young people involved in anti-social activity and crime that the Police Station is absolutely overrun with cases and they have approached us and said “Is there any way you can help?”so we have come up with a project, we haven't launched it officially yet, but I'll give listeners an inkling as to what it is about. The idea is that we are going to have “Imams on the Street”, the idea would be that we have people who are strong in their iman (faith) who feel that they want to make a difference to their community and they will go out on the street and they will engage people and support them to divert them from crime and anti-social behaviour. That's our starting point and I am really fortunate to be supported by about 30 people so far, men and women, who have come forward to take a youth work qualification which we have laid on to NVQ level 2. We are appealing to these people to, when they have completed their qualification, to become part of this team of people who will go out onto the streets of Nottingham. Not just in Forest Fields but wherever this issue occurs, where Muslim youth are being led astray or going astray themselves – to interject, to make a difference in their lives.

BFTF : Why do you think this is happening now? Why not 10 or 15 years ago.

MY : Certainly 10 years ago, we didn't have the same rates of crime, anti-social behaviour and unemployment. There was a higher degree of control by families in terms of supporting their children. I think as time has gone on, certainly into the last decade, more and more people are thinking about working, the cost of living is going up, so there are lots of socio-economic factors that are affecting the make up of our community and also the impact that it is having on the different elements of the community, whether they be the elderly, middle aged parents, young people or even children. So, in some ways, to ask why this kind of work didn't happen earlier, we are reacting to current needs and maybe 10 years ago these weren't current needs.

But engagement with young people was, and maybe Karimia is in a good position to be able to boast that we were doing youth work . I can certainly remember when I was working in the local authority delivering camps at Overton Park . We would take young people and families camping and they would be able to see the countryside, some young people had never seen the countryside.

BFTF : On a slightly separate subject, I noticed that you were involved with a recent Himmah Institute “Big Supper” event, where they provided food for local homeless people. What's your perception of their work?

MY : It's interesting that you ask me that question because I was cajoled into supporting that one as well. I think that it is a very good connection by Muslim young people and I think that it is admirable that it is young people who are at the forefront of this one. The work that they have done is building bridges with organizations that wouldn't know the Muslim community and certainly they do know the Muslim community now. You know, if you maintain a clear Niyat (Intention) as to why you are doing it then it both benefits us and it benefits them. Perhaps what they should do is to have a calendar of events and invite people along to it, so if there are people out there who are thinking that they could give some time to volunteering, perhaps an hour or two, that might be an ideal way of doing it. Perhaps if they could produce such a calendar we could put it out on the airwaves.

“The Big Supper” for local homeless people

 BFTF : Lastly, could you give feel for the quality of mentoring that you and Perwaise do in the Youth Club as listeners may not be aware of everything that goes on behind the scenes.

MY : We are really keen to start supporting and helping young people achieve. As you know, Karimia Institute is about education, our mission statement says very clearly that we are about education.

We are about keeping people in education for a start. Many of our young people are beginning to find themselves in positions where they are excluded and not only that, they are not succeeding in achieving their 5 GCSE's and so were are hoping to support that education effort through our tutorial classes.

But in the Youth Club itself, that is an opportunity for youth workers, older young men and women to build a relationship with young people. So if those young people have got issues and they want to talk to someone, they should have someone who they can talk and look up to. I can remember years ago people used to organise events and I would get invited along to them and they would show an interest in me, and as a young person, I used to value that. And that is what we still need to provide – an appropriate adult who can be both a role model to young people but also show an interest and care for young people because that is what they don't have. Many of them are lacking in people who care and love them for who they are – and certainly in the Youth Club, people may think that the Youth Club is all about playing games but it's more than that, it's about building relationships with other people and if these people are building relationships in a place like a masjid (mosque) then that is phenomenal because that says that coming to the masjid is cool, its OK. So we don't need to cajole young people to come here and if they come to the Youth Club and the adhan (call to prayer) goes then it is the norm that that they will say their salah (prayers) and then come back to the Youth Club. We don't want to create an environment where you HAVE to go to the masjid and it has to be done with a stick – how it should be done is through love and association and the youth club provides that, and certainly the youth workers here are working with parents to address issues that the parents have identified. So if the parents are concerned and worried about their son, as has been the case – I can think of numerous examples of where people have come to see me and said “Look, I am really concerned, my son continually gets arrested by the Police and I'm really unhappy about that”. So when does he get arrested? “He gets arrested in the evenings”. So if he comes to the Youth Club he is active in those hours when he would be getting into trouble, then we are diverting him from crime.

So we are doing things that people do not see, normally. People see young people in our centre and they think “what are all these young kids doing here, running around” – well actually, they are running around in a good place, in our masjid and that is a really good thing.

Interview with Muhammad Yaseen, Director of Youth Services, Karimia Institute, on 29th June 2011 on Radio Dawn 107.6FM was originally posted here.

Emmanuel House have, quite reasonably, commented that Emmanuel have “moved away from being such a strongly Christian organization. It has a much broader base of support now.”

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