Feeding Paris’s poor and homeless during Ramadan
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A French Muslim charity is serving 60,000 free meals during Ramadan from a temporary structure on the edge of Paris. It’s a place where the faithful – and anyone else who wants to join – can break their day-long fast, in a spirit of togetherness.
For 21 years, a French charity has helped poor and homeless Muslims – and non-Muslims – break their Ramadan fast at sunset.
“Une Chorba Pour Tous” [Soup for Everyone] serves approximately a thousand people a day during the holy month of Ramadan from its centre at Porte des Lilas in northeast Paris.
An hour before the distribution begins there are already hundreds of people lining up; women and children on one side, men on the other.
The crowd is made up of young and old; not all of them are here for religious reasons.
“Une Chorba Pour Tous” – chorba is a popular North African soup that is a staple of the sunset Ramadan feast – may be an Islamic charity, but its organisers insist that everyone is welcome.
“We feed Muslims who come here to break their fast, but we also feed non-Muslims, the homeless, alcoholics, people of all ages and backgrounds,” says charity president Hakim Didouche. “Our doors are open to everyone.”
‘I’m better off here than in my little apartment’
It’s 8 p.m. and the first distribution begins for those taking food parcels to eat at home.
Inside the centre, the long wooden trestle tables are empty as volunteers lay out plates of dates, which alongside a half baguette, yoghurt and the eponymous chorba make up the evening meal.
Despite the 33-degree Parisian heat, the food hall is sweltering beneath its temporary plastic roof. But the volunteers are in good spirits.
“I’m better off here than in my little apartment, which is baking hot,” says 34-year-old Wassila, who had to take a break and splash water on her head. She refuses the offer of a lift back home.
Wassila is one of 30 volunteers. Among those there to help are students, workers, the unemployed and the retired, who go about their work with humour and determination.
They improvise their roles for the evening’s work, some cooking, some preparing vegetables. Others serve, maintain order and finally clean up.
“I’m here to help, to do something good, to give something back,” says Issène, 22. “It’s important to make an extra effort during Ramadan, and it does give you a feeling of moral satisfaction.”
Wassila, originally from Algeria, says helping out helps her get back to her roots: “While we’re handing out the food we speak in Arabic, it makes me feel like I’m with my family, in Algeria, back with the familiar language and the familiar traditions.”
An industrial production line
By 9 p.m. Iftar – the moment when the sun goes down and Muslims observing Ramadan can finally eat and drink – the volunteers are doing their final chores.
It’s almost like an industrial production line. Bread is chopped and sweet Tunisian pastries are laid on plates, only to be attacked by wasps, who are not waiting around for the sun to set.
The tables start filling up with a wide assortment of diners. As the moment approaches, a loudspeaker blares Koranic verses announcing the start of Iftar. Hundreds of hands reach simultaneously for a glass of water to slake an entire day’s thirst.
By 9.45, the centre’s stocks of water, fizzy drinks and fermented milk are fast disappearing. Left behind for later consumption are piles of “Culture Qatar” magazine, a reminder of the provenance of the charity’s main donors, whose contributions allow “Une Chorba Pour Tous” to feed between 1,000 and 1,200 souls a day.
“Most of the donors are private individuals,” says Hakim Didouche, who adds that the 20th arrondissement town hall has also helped the project by providing public land where the charity sets up operations every Ramadan.
‘It’s a part of my identity that I can never forget’
At 10 o’clock, the atmosphere is one of celebration and lively conversation. Warda, 28, who has come to eat with her husband Khalid, is surprised by the joyfulness of the occasion.
“Breaking the fast is a very important moment for me,” says the young woman, who has only recently moved to Paris from her family home in rural western France. “It’s a part of my identity that I can never forget.”
The couple, who are unemployed and homeless, have been coming here for the last two weeks.
“Before, we would do a bit of shopping and eat in our car or in a hotel room,” says Khalid. “But coming here does a lot of good, and despite the heat of the summer, it’s good to have a hot meal.”
On another table Seddik, a 40-year old man who “does odd jobs” says that he is not a devout Muslim and does not observe Ramadan, but comes to “Une Chorba Pour Tous” because he enjoys the atmosphere.
“I wouldn’t go so far as to say you make friends here, but at least you get to meet people,” he says, grinning and rolling a cigarette. “Even if I’m not doing it because of religious convictions, there’s a strong traditional element that I do enjoy.”
‘Conversations sometimes start fights’
It’s 10:30 p.m. and latecomers are queuing up for the second service.
Saïd, 62, a retired builder, is among them. “I live alone here in Paris and it’s important to break the fast surrounded by others,” he says. I’ve been in France for 52 years and didn’t observe Ramadan for a long time. Now that I am retired, I try to do it every year.”
Even if Saïd claims he enjoys the company, he’s still not an easy man to approach: “I don’t like to talk to the others here too much. I don’t talk to people I don’t know. Conversations sometimes start fights.”
There is no trouble at Une Chorba Pour Tous on this occasion, although one woman, upset at losing her place at one of the tables, screams “sheitan” [“devil” in Arabic] at everyone and anyone.
By 11 p.m., the centre is starting to empty out, and volunteers are puffing away on their first cigarettes since service began.
On August 9, at the end of Ramadan, 60,000 chorbas will have been served out in this temporary metal and plastic structure. It will be dismantled, but only after Eid al-Fitr, the feast that marks the end of the holy month.
Eid won’t put an end to the charity’s operations, however. Une Chorba Pour Tous has been feeding the homeless every day for the last five years at a street stand near Stalingrad in the city’s 19th arrondissement.
Last year the charity served 500,000 free meals to the capital’s most vulnerable inhabitants.