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Ashoka Fellows Celebrate Ramadan By Giving Back

Beyond being a period for spiritual reflection, celebration, and gathering with family, Ramadan has always been a season of generosity and an opportunity to give back to the community.
Ramadan AAW

Beyond being a period for spiritual reflection, celebration, and gathering with family, Ramadan has always been a season of generosity and an opportunity to give back to the community. However, this year, as the season of Ramadan overlaps with the growing global COVID-19 crisis, many community iftars and gatherings have no longer been possible, and observers have had to grapple with the pandemic and its health and economic effects.

Still, many celebrators are finding ways to give back to their communities in these difficult times. Within the Ashoka community, our Fellows across the Arab world have not only been pivoting their work toward tackling the current global crisis, but have also made efforts to give back a little extra to their communities in honor of Ramadan.

As Eid approaches, we want to spotlight the work of a few of our Fellows who have found new avenues for impact and giving in these tenuous times, discussing what Ramadan means to them and what they are doing to serve those in need as they celebrate.

Launching a Work From Home Challenge

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All over Egypt, NGOs have been racing to raise funds to provide food for those affected by the lockdown to help them stay home and save lives - unfortunately, many of the food packages are small, and many families are now under additional pressure to pay rent, buy medicine, and preserve their dignity in these difficult times.

In response, since the lockdown in Egypt began, Marwa El Daly and her team at Waqfeyat al Maadi Community Foundation have been running a challenge called “#Help_them_work_from_home.” The “help_them_work_from_home” initiative, which was extended throughout Ramadan, encourages people to work from home by inviting philanthropists to support individuals or families of their choice who have been affected by the current COVID-19 crisis.

We launched online calls to accept applications for those interested in starting their own projects from home and also invited community-based organizations to nominate those severely affected in their communities, and we started providing these individuals and families with tools and machines that best fit their talents and experience to help them to work from home,” Marwa explained.

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“Around 20 families in 3 weeks started working as part of a supply chain producing bed covers, Ramadan decorations, and tablecloths thanks to the sewing machines they received and the network we connected them to. We quickly developed a business model that allowed us to establish a flat factory where people work on items that sell from home. This to us was a form of “waqf” or an endowed business, and it reached its peak in Ramadan when one of Egypt’s biggest malls ordered all of its decorations for the Holy Month from us, and more specifically, from the daily workers who are now working from home. Dandy Mall also offered to provide us, free of charge, a booth to exhibit these products throughout the year, from Ramadan onwards,” she stated.

The Waqfeyat al Maadi Community Foundation is a community-led trust, creating sustainable local funds to meet local priorities. In addition to the deal with the mall, the organization has also  started to produce personal protective equipment for hospitals and is closing deals that allow participating families to rely on a monthly fixed income. “The model is shaping up quickly, and it reflects how such hard times have brought out the best in philanthropists and within the communities that have suffered the most to be proactive and act as real agents of change,” Marwa affirmed.

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Providing Food Security

“This year's Ramadan is different due to the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on our lives. We are used to many restrictions and hardships, but this virus is new, and its physical, economic, and social implications are widespread, unforeseen, and unexpected,” Ashoka Fellow Yasser Al Hajj said, detailing the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on the Palestinian refugee camps where his organization, Karama, operates.

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“Palestinians in the refugee camps have been very worried about their safety because of the weak infrastructure in the camps and the high population density. Moreover, economic life has been greatly impacted, leading to many families losing their source of income. Most families live on a day-to-day or month-to-month basis, with unstable incomes and no savings to count on. So losing 90 days of salary is huge for them.”

Karama, based in Palestine, works to change dependent mindsets and food insecurity of Palestinian refugees through the creation of rooftop greenhouses run by women and refugee communities - giving Palestinians ownership over the production and sale of food products. Karama also educates them in agricultural and entrepreneurial best practices, creating sustainable employment opportunities and bolstering local agriculture. Now, they are pivoting their work and advocating with their international donors, partners, and supporters, to send immediate assistance to the most vulnerable families within the communities they operate.

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And their efforts have paid off. So far, this Ramadan, Karama alone has distributed over 800 household food packages, 600 kilos of chicken, 600 bags of hand sanitizer, and 3,700 bags of milk and medication to vulnerable households in all of the refugee camps and the surrounding areas.

“In cooperation with other local actors, we managed to add another 1,300 food packages and 12,000 hygiene kits,” Yasser explained. “In our work, we naturally hope to increase the people's resilience and not stay limited to hand-outs, so we have been designing cash-for-work programs and women-led business-rehabilitation programs in order to kick-start economic activities in our communities as soon as this is safely possible,” he continued, describing how he is beginning to look toward rebuilding in the post-crisis world.

Similarly, in Tunisia, Ashoka Fellow Laila Ben Gacem has joined forces with Red Crescent Medina branch and Dar Slah restaurant to provide meals to those who lost their jobs within the community every single day of Ramadan. Their kitchen has been taken over by Chef Slim, a talented chef known for his Tunisian cuisine, who has been donating his time to make meals for the Medina’s needy, and cooks for around 80-100 people a day.

Laila works to restore the vibrancy of Tunisia’s medinas through her organization Blue Fish, a grassroots movement led by students, heritage activists and cultural entrepreneurs.

Supporting Families in Need

Nawal Mostafa’s organization, Children of Women Prisoners Association, works to improve prison conditions for poverty prisoners and rehabilitate former inmates to society. She has also led reform efforts to change the public perception that all prisoners are alike and works to connect women with interventions to address their poverty before it results in further imprisonment.

Now, in the mindset of Ramadan and the global crisis, Nawal is expanding her work, and her organization initiated the “Children of the Finees” project in order to help 500 families who need nutritional support - targeting families working in the informal sector or labor sector and contributing to the payment of debts for 15 finees.

She has also worked to distribute material and nutritional aid to women before Ramadan to support these women in facing the repercussions of the pandemic and to spread awareness about the pandemic, discussing health precautions with children while distributing Ramadan lanterns.

The organization is currently distributing more food bags to women during Ramadan, with their acts of charity extending beyond Cairo - their services have now reached the Assiut governorate. When engaging with the villages they are serving in Assiut, they have also used it as an opportunity to check up on the health of those in the villages and lend an extra hand to 200 families affected by rains and floods in April, providing them with food bags and blankets.

Spearheading a Youth Movement

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In Jordan, Ashoka Fellow Samar Dudin’s organization Ruwaad launched two campaigns in Amman to deliver food packages, health and medical support, and digital access to a total of 1,792 families and 9,766 individuals in 18 East Amman neighborhoods. As the shutdown in Jordan has limited mobility, these types of deliveries have become vital.

Samar explained that these campaigns are based on building a leadership structure where a core team is formed and leadership teams are then expanded as neighborhood activists.

“It’s been humbling to see our 100 youth scholars and 50 external volunteers mobilize their resources with our board members and so many active citizen’s corporations and partners,” Samar reflected. “Everyone came together at the critical time between March 19 and April 30 to ensure that we can reach families, children, and youth in their homes and to create supportive teams of youth in 18 neighborhoods who can create solidarity and mindful action. It was truly an act of great will to challenge COVID-19 and to create a sense of certainty in a time of great uncertainty.”

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Ruwaad empowers youth to become active citizens in their communities, offering young individuals customized civic engagement channels suited to their needs.

“Ramadan is tough this year; I am on Zoom all day to drive the work forward,” Samar confessed. “I look forward to going back to a normal life post-COVID-19 - seeing our community center full of youth and spending time with my family which I miss hugging a lot, especially my mom.”