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A Call to Serve

A Call to Serve

Issue 67 April 2010

The Ethiopian famine in 1955 moved 11 community organisations to direct action. United by that call to service they built one of Britain’s leading NGOs. Amena Sacranie discovers the impetus behind 25 years of Muslim Aid.

Amidst the bustling, vibrancy and diversity of London’s Tower Hamlets, Muslim Aid’s headquarters can be found. It is from here that its global operations in over 70 countries are coordinated.

Muslim Aid was founded in 1985 as a response to the famine in Ethiopia. The famine, which touched so many hearts, spurred on 11 Muslim community organisations to provide emergency relief. Inspired and motivated by the generosity of the Muslim response, all the founders decided not just to continue, but to expand and explore more opportunities to help some of the most impoverished communities on the planet. And thus from humble beginnings in a shared office in North London, Muslim Aid became a leading UK Non Governmental Organisation (NGO) providing relief and hope to millions.

Today, the organisation, celebrating its 25th anniversary, continues to provide emergency relief to people who are victims of natural disasters as well as manmade catastrophes, but it has expanded its work to implement longterm development initiatives in order to tackle the root causes of poverty. In line with the Chinese proverb, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”, the charity implements education and skills training, orphan programmes, healthcare and nutritional projects; as well as specialising in sharia compliant micro finance initiatives, enabling people to lift themselves out of poverty through trade and not aid.

To keep the organisation dynamic and vibrant, Muslim Aid has a policy of changing its chairman. The first chairman of the organisation was Yusuf Islam(formerly Cat Stevens) who served the organisation from 1985 to 1993; today that position is held by Sir Iqbal Sacranie. I ask him about the original vision and how that is being actioned today, “Our founders established Muslim Aid to serve humanity. Inspired by the teachings of Islam and guided by principles of justice and compassion we assist those in need, regardless of religion, ethnicity, gender, nationality or political affiliations. We believe in tackling poverty through sustainable and practical solutions. Muslim Aid is focused on breaking the cycle of poverty, empowering individuals and communities to become self sufficient and economically independent.”

For this type of approach to work, they work closely with all the communities in which they are based, to develop and deliver the programmes with them. Through these long-term development programmes, people who have been through unthinkable disasters can attempt to return to some sort of normality.

In addition to partnering with local communities, Muslim Aid has built partnerships with Government, other aid organisations as well as the UN. Their work has included partnerships with the Department for International Development (DFID), the World Bank, the Humanitarian Aid department of the European Commission (ECHO), Islamic Development Bank and Asian Development Bank. They have also  engaged with other charities, including UMCOR, Global Medic , AmeriCares and many other worldwide relief agencies. Their work with Oxfam in Ramadan 2009 made global headlines as they showed at least 23 million Muslims who were caught up in conflicts and disasters have been fasting during the holy month with little more than bread and water to break their fast. The report detailed that six out of eighteen of all under-funded UN Emergency appeals were in Muslim countries, and that one in two people suffering from some of the most chronic humanitarian crises on the planet is Muslim. In addition, Muslim Aid was a key signatory to the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, aiming to end global poverty by 2015.

There are so many projects that Muslim Aid is working on that it is difficult to decide what to focus on. From computer training in Albania to sewing skills in Pakistan, Muslim Aid is working hard to offer courses that have potential to help people find work, income and independence. Yet there are three projects I feel deserve particular mention. The establishment of Bosaso College of Training and Computers (BCTC) in Somalia offers courses and programmes that lead to real job opportunities and thus an independent future for its beneficiaries. Its mission is to focus on education and the use of modern technology to help escape poverty and in the development of sustainable livelihoods. It currently has an intake of 500 students per year, and has become the number one educational institution in the district and a beacon of light in the troubled Puntland state of Somalia.

Another project demonstrating outstanding success is the Rainbow Family Project. Currently supporting over 2100 orphans and destitute children,  the Rainbow Family spreads across Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Somalia, Sierra, Leone, Bosnia, Iraq, Macedonia, Palestine, Kosovo, Lebanon, South Africa, Sudan and Gambia. The aim is to help educate the future leaders, so they will grow up to be responsible citizens who will in turn contribute to their societies. As Syed Sharfuddin, Muslim Aid’s CEO puts it, ‘People have enormous potential. If we can unleash this potential they don’t just survive but they can sustain and help others to develop too.” One of the pioneering programmes directly related to elevating poverty is Muslim Aid’s interest free Microfinance programme. Micro-finance is the provision of small loans (microloans) to those in poverty, designed to spur entrepreneurship.

Although Muslim Aid has expanded to work in over 70 countries worldwide, they have not forgotten the Prophetic call that charity begins close to home and as a UK based NGO have thus continued to resource valuable projects in the UK. Aid has been given to those facing hardship in the UK, with skills training and educational projects top of the agenda. Their “Pathway 2” citizenship project, funded by London City Council, helps get Muslim youth off the streets, especially those involved in gang violence. They are also undertaking an ‘Education Really Matters’ project funded by DFID where they raise awareness among young people in London about challenges faced by young children in accessing education in developing countries, inspiring a new generation of people to be concerned about global poverty alleviation. They have also funded the MCB Books for Schools project promoting community cohesion by providing mainstream schools with Islamic resources in order to promote harmony and respect amongst Britain’s diverse communities.

This work would not be achievable without the thousands of volunteers across the world who commit to Muslim Aid’s vision. One such volunteer, Anjuna Begum, 25 helps with administration within the Volunteers Department. “I love to volunteer,” she says, “It makes me feel like I’m helping the poor and needy, and I’m gaining administrative and life skills along the way. In addition, I get to meet great people from all different walks of life and be part of a team that serves humanity, making a real difference to people's lives".  Hamid Azad, Assistant CEO of Muslim Aid believes
that the volunteer programme is essential to Muslim Aid’s success, “A number of organisations are very selective about their membership. At Muslim Aid we believe that anyone who wants to help the poor and the needy can join our efforts and become a member of team MA.”

In addition to the volunteers, the Chairman, Sir Iqbal Sacranie, is keen to recognise the donors who have made the work of Muslim Aid possible over the past 25 years “We owe our success to our individual and corporate donors who have made this organisation what it is today. In celebrating our 25th anniversary we take this opportunity to thank all our donors who have made it possible for Muslim Aid to come thus far.”

Muslim Aid has come far from just a small office in London 25 years ago. Today they have thirteen field offices and work in over 70 countries. As a young Muslim woman, I am inspired that, in a world filled with disasters and war, there are people who will stop at nothing to spread hope and happiness to the people that need it the most. In the words of John Wesley who brought together faith and social justice in his teachings, ‘Do all the good you can, By all the means you can, In all the ways you can, In all the places you can, At all the times you can, To all the people you can, As long as ever you can.’ Frankly, I believe, after 25 years Muslim Aid is a beacon organisation doing just that.


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