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The Beggars Outside The Masjid: Myth and Reality

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A woman in her 30s in a headscarf hails the worshipers as they leave Eid salah. Feeling a curious mix of guilt and joy, most don’t hesitate in handing over some money. They have cash in their pockets and purses today, expecting to give it as gifts to the children in their own families.

Some have not paid their Sadaqah Fitr [charity due before Eid Salah] and jump at the chance to give it in person. The woman looks like she is in need, she also knows the right things to say.

From New Orleans to London, beggars have become a part of the Eid and often Jumuah prayers. A set of seven or eight were outside a large East Coast masjid, says Sarah S., who was visiting family. Some are visibly Middle Eastern or from the Indian subcontinent, and many are supposedly Romani, often holding index cards asking for money.

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The worshipers at a local Islamic Center were also targeted by a group of women and children, who would be dropped off by a man in a white van. They had been coming for years.

In the past the board of the center politely requested that they stop begging and fill a zakat form. They refused and eventually admitted that they were not Muslim. “[This Ramadan] I chased them out,” says Ibrahim Zuberi, Director of Communications at the center. He told them that they have to leave immediately or the center will call the police to report trespassing.

According to a documentary made by the BBC, in the United Kingdom gangs dress women and children in modest clothes and headscarves, despite not being Muslim. [Update: Read Qristina’s comment below on Romani culture and dress which includes loose, long clothing and headscarves.] They know that giving to the poor is a religious tenet and that is why the beggars single out ‘wealthy’ Muslims, say the documentary makers. They target masajid and areas popular with rich tourists from the Gulf States and their minders collect all the funds at the end of the day.

Kimberly H. has encountered some beggars around the DC Metro area. “It burns me up that they’re likely just taking advantage of the generosity of certain brothers and sisters at Eid. Last year, a woman followed her into a store and asked her for money (after giving a perfect salaam),” she said. Hutchins did not fall for it as her suspicions were raised.

She saw the same woman at the area wide Eid salah last year, where she begged her for money. “I told her, game’s up, you asked me for money a few days ago. Not this time, either,” Kimberly chastised her.

Kimberly says she had a horrible feeling that the woman was working a ‘job’ and could be part of a human trafficking gang. “If I know what I know, and I could be wrong, this is their job, they are sent out by [a] pimp-like man to do this every day and they give him a cut [or] all of what they make begging,” she shares.

Kimberly’s hunch could be correct. Malika Bey-Rushdan, Director of ICNA Relief Boston, sent a warning in an email to ICNA donors during Ramadan, “Many of you have seen the Romani women outside your masjids begging for money – this is a network of Romani people (gypsies). They are not in need!! They are dropped off at the masjids and picked back up after the prayers; often by [men] in very nice cars. Beware. They are taking advantage of your generosity.”

Bey-Rushdan suggests people educate themselves about beggars, as many of the women and children are victims of trafficking.  “The best thing to do is contact the authorities,” writes Bey-Rushdan.

Young children in hijab are used to wheedle hearts and then all the money collected is taken away by their minders. The manipulation of using babies and kids on the corner on the occasion of Eid also offends Hutchins, a mother of young children. “Everything about it screams ‘wrong’.” She felt uncomfortable that they find Muslim places of worship and have acquainted themselves enough so that they can “blend”.

Myths and Tropes about Romanis

There are many myths and tropes about Romanis that further complicate matters. Needless to say, not all Romanis are criminals or beggars and some are Muslims. They have a horrific history of persecution in Europe; many were enslaved until the mid-1800s in Romania after they left the Punjab region of India as early as the 11th century. More than half a million were murdered by the Nazis during World War II.

They distrust governments that persecuted and forcibly assimilated them, took away their children and sterilized them, and forced them to adopt a nomadic lifestyle that is considered unconventional, partly to preserve their heritage. Even though there are roughly one million Romani Americans, many who are non-nomadic, anti-Gypsy laws have been in effect in the United States until 1998. You read that right.

Historically, they have been banned from owning property in the countries they settled in, barred from many professions, and not given the opportunity to get an education. Because of this, they end up in marginal professions.

They are seen as callous trouble-makers, who don’t care for their children, leading to severe racial prejudice. According to writer Isabel Fonseca, who spent four years researching Gypsies, “Gypsy women, whatever the earnings of their husbands, are ultimately charged with supporting and feeding their children.” They do not let anyone take care of their children, except family and friends. So to think that all Roma would willingly give up their children to become beggars— or worse sell them —is simply dehumanizing them.

‘Gypsy’ kidnappers are also a myth that has been used for centuries to other this oppressed minority.

Many Romani think the term gypsy itself is an ethnic slur and do not wish to be called by it (the term ‘I got gypped’ also stems from this same racial bias). Their entire race is looked upon as criminal and so they are treated as a ‘lower race’.

Just as there are criminals in every race, there may be in the Roma people too. Just like there are people in each community who take advantage of desperate people in their own community, there may be in the Roma community as well.

In general, begging or duping people is a universal phenomenon which cannot be confined to one race.

Many people wonder if the beggars, Roma or otherwise, are really in need, are doing this as a job or are being forced into panhandling. They feel bad for beggars in general and recall the hadith:

“Do not turn away a poor man…even if all you can give is half a date. If you love the poor and bring them near you…God will bring you near Him on the Day of Resurrection.” Al-Tirmidhi, Hadith 1376.

Give a little if you wish or don’t if you would rather not- but beware of dehumanizing people who maybe already going through harsh circumstances.

The best way to make sure your donations get to someone in real need is to give it person to person through trusted family, community workers, through international organizations, or to local Muslim charities.

Reported by Abu Hurairah raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him): Messenger of Allah ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) said, “It is better for anyone of you to carry a bundle of wood on his back and sell it than to beg of someone whether he gives him or refuses.”
(Bukhari and Muslim)

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Hena Zuberi is the Editor in Chief of Muslimmatters.org. She leads the DC office of the human rights organization, Justice For All, focusing on stopping the genocide of the Rohingya under Burma Task Force, advocacy for the Uighur people with the Save Uighur Campaign and Free Kashmir Action. She was a Staff Reporter at the Muslim Link newspaper which serves the DC Metro. Hena has worked as a television news reporter and producer for CNBC Asia and World Television News. Active in her SoCal community, Hena served as the Youth Director for the Unity Center. Using her experience with Youth, she conducts Growing Up With God workshops. hena.z@muslimmatters.org Follow her on Twitter @henazuberi.

14 Comments

14 Comments

  1. Qristina

    January 5, 2015 at 8:37 AM

    I am Romani, and while I appreciate the aim of this article, I do just want to clarify a few things. Romani don’t dress “modestly” or with headscarves to appear Muslim. It is part of our culture, as many others, for women to cover themselves (long skirts, long sleeves, covered hair). I still practice this custom myself, even though I am a young working professional and as such I am removed from many of the more traditional aspects of my culture. We are not trying to ‘blend’ or appear as something we are not. It is a long established part of our cultural heritage.

    There are also many Muslim Romani, especially from countries such as Bulgaria and Turkey. The Xoraxane (Horahane) are one such group – and they too have fled to the UK and the US. However, no matter whether the women and children you see are Muslim Romani or not, they ARE in need. Most of the people you see are immigrants who have little to nothing to their names. They face terrible discrimination on a daily basis and yes, many of them are trafficked or otherwise duped into travelling into the country in which they are currently residing. They pay everything they have for a plane or bus ticket, often to a middle-man who promises them the world (almost literally), but unfortunately, they are often left stranded and alone. There are so many negative news reports claiming that Romani beggars are actually rich, or that they are claiming hundreds of thousands in benefits, or that they are working as a huge criminal network. These reports have never been proven. As a Romani immigrant myself, I can tell you that this path is not easy and that as a people, we are not happy and proud if we have to resort to begging. Our children are not allowed a full education and work in central Europe. We can’t even find adequate food, health care, or housing. If we are coming to the UK or the US, it is because we feel we have no other choice and that, perhaps, our children may find a better life here.

    • Hena Zuberi

      January 5, 2015 at 12:29 PM

      Thank you for commenting Qristina and clarifying that point. Until we learn more about people we other, we cannot help in any meaningful way.

      How can we help those in real need without be duped or worse contributing to the coffers of trafickers? Zakat or Sadaqah Fitr is a religious obligation for Muslims and have to reach the hands of those in real need otherwise according to many of our scholars this act of worship is rendered incomplete. Registering for zakat or sadaqah will provide a regular means of income that is their right according to our faith (especially if they are Muslims and even if they are not). If you have anyway to get the word out, we would encourage those in need to register to receive funds through the masjid, instead of begging in front of the mosques.

    • Ayaz

      January 5, 2015 at 3:47 PM

      Very true sister cristina

    • Helge Valama

      August 11, 2015 at 3:39 AM

      Good Cristina!
      The article, was good and bad, but little dangres!
      Your answere, was perfect!
      We have the beggars, ewreywhere. Ewerybody, is not Roma, there is other groups, too!
      Im working volontery, with the roma, in Romania and in the other word, is terrible. If all should see, the situation, your mind should chages, much. Im a roma, from Finland (64 years) and I know, how hard it was, when I was little and still little!
      There ate many muslim roma and ofcourse, there are bad people, in ewery group!

  2. Ibn Adnan Al-Yutaawi

    January 5, 2015 at 11:24 AM

    In our masjid we have dealt with so many frauds that it’s really hard to trust anyone anymore.

    • Abu Nuhaa

      January 15, 2015 at 1:15 AM

      Unfortunately even some registered charities cannot be trusted nowadays.

  3. Sana Mohsin

    January 5, 2015 at 6:12 PM

    Jazakillah khair Sr Hena!It’s an enlightened post and I have another request.I just went through an experience of seeing a supposedly revert sister going to a local charity organization and was able to get everything from them and other considerate sisters.This is a new kind of gang that has taken birth.It happened with me and I have lost trust in Revert sisters. I made my voice heard locally but I don’t know what they did after they got proofs.

  4. Bilkis

    January 5, 2015 at 7:24 PM

    SubhanAllah, I have heard something similar before but the thing is I just can’t walk away from a beggar even if he/she is not a muslim. If they are begging under the influence of a gang leader who gets a share, then it’s a big problem. But muslim/nonmuslim is really not a big deal. I have never given more than $2 anyway, so it’s not a big deal.

    • Ibrahim

      January 5, 2015 at 10:17 PM

      Assalaamu ‘alaykum, I have lived in Indonesia for 6 years, and interact with ‘beggars’ on a regular basis. In my experience it is nearly impossible to establish who really needs this money and who is simply ‘scamming’. I have been duped/conned many times by shameless individuals. The people who get involved in this profession often find it very difficult to stop once they see it as a means of generating ‘free’ cash. If you were to offer them a job with similar or less money they would most likely refuse it because begging has become an all too easy method to obtain cash. The most evil of these people are the mothers who wait nearby while they watch and instruct their children to beg strangers for money. The money earned isn’t used to pay for the child’s school fee’s like originally planned, no, the mother has realized how much money she can make pimping out her child, and so the poor little innocent boy/girl will now be doing this full time. There are also many people who don’t actually need the money, but they will keep showing up at the same place each week simply because the prospect of obtaining some fast cash is too good an opportunity to give up.

      Ultimately, when we give to the beggar we are rewarded and this is the most important thing; however, when I find out I have given part of my Zakah or sadaqah to a con artist who doesn’t actually deserve it, it irritates me. This is just part of my character. I feel somewhat betrayed and disgusted with this person if i’m being all the way honest. As we are not allowed to chastise the beggar, I just have to accept that this person is one of weak emaan, and ignore them next time they ask for money.

      I hate to see people begging and I always feel guilty if I don’t give them something; however, the best thing we can do in order to establish who actually needs financial assistance is to not give money to these people, and encourage them to go to the masjid if they truly need help. Another thing I do is instead of giving money to children when I know it will go to her mother AKA pimp, I will try to buy them food or something they can actually use, so at least they can benefit or enjoy something small for a brief moment in their poor little lives.

      I suspect some prideful Romani people will feel some type of way about this article, but im also confident that the author has done her research. Unfortunately, the Romani name has become attached to the begging scene in certain parts of the world . Facts are facts. Accept the reality of the situation. Represent yourself as a Romani individual and do not feel degraded or offended by what other members of your race are doing.

  5. Um Aneesa

    January 5, 2015 at 7:48 PM

    This article left me wanting more. I appreciated Qristina’s valuable comments. Would love to see another article on the Roma and some more actionable suggestions for what Muslims should do when they meet a beggar at a mosque.

    I also came across this story about a young Roma boy:

    My Name Was Hussein
    by Hristo Kyuchukov, Khristo Kiuchukov

    Young Hussein lives with his Roma family in a small village in Bulgaria. Some call them gypsies, but they are Roma people, whose ancestors migrated many years ago from India. Hussein and his family are Muslims. The boy loves to celebrate the many religious holidays, when his house fills with the delicious smells of his mother’s cooking. He also loves his name: Hussein. In Arabic, Hussein means handsome. The name has been handed down in his family for generations. Even so, everyone in his family calls him Hughsy. Life is good in Hussein’s village–until the soldiers come with guns, and tanks, and dogs. Soon the mosques are closed. No one is allowed to enter and pray. Then Hussein and his family are forced to give up their names and are ordered to choose Christian names. Hussein is now called Harry. This powerful story puts a human face on the victims of racial and religious prejudice.
    http://www.amazon.ca/Name-Was-Hussein-Hristo-Kyuchukov/dp/1563979640

  6. ISMAIL OCHIENG

    January 6, 2015 at 12:54 AM

    And yet I thought this was a peculiar thing to us here in Kenya.In the city’s masjid,there are these beggars,most often times women with little children.They always stand outside the Masjid on Jumu’ah to beg.What usually troubles me is that they don’t even attend salaat,astaghfirullah!then there are those types that are all over the city streets and disabled.It was recently established that they are “imported” into the country,rented a single house and usually driven very early in the morning by their pimps and taken in the evening.They have basically turned it into a profession.

  7. ISMAIL OCHIENG

    January 6, 2015 at 1:05 AM

    And yet I thought this was a peculiar thing to us here in Kenya.In the city’s jamaatmasjid,there are these beggars,most often times women with little children.They always stand outside the Masjid on Jumu’ah to beg.What usually troubles me is that they don’t even attend salaat,astaghfirullah!then there are those types that are all over the city streets and disabled.It was recently established that they are “imported” into the country,rented a single house and usually driven very early in the morning by their pimps and taken in the evening.They have basically turned it into a profession.

  8. Mujahid Ubaid

    January 6, 2015 at 12:57 PM

    Allah knows best. As Muslims we are enjoined to spend in the way of Allah to help those in need regardless of race or religious preference. If we are
    dupped by those who only
    wish to hustle and con as theirmeans of livlihood then we should make sure it does not continue further. Yes I agree. It
    is also recorded in Hadeeth
    that the Prophet ((SAWS) said
    that there is no better food
    than food in which a person
    buys with his own money that
    he has earned lawfully. These sort of criminals should be admonished as to what they are doing is wrong and perhaps, insha’Allah, if Allah sees any good in them He will make them listen and they will repent and make amends.

    • Helge Valama

      August 11, 2015 at 3:44 AM

      Where, is my answere??

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