BEIRUT: Mustafa Khuraizat and his fellow volunteers from Hezbollah’s reserves hurried to fold cardboard boxes. Nearby, another volunteer lit the fire under the cooking stoves.
“When we are asked to go to the field of jihad, we go,” Khuraizat said. “And when we are asked to serve people, we serve the people.”
The 18-year-old volunteer helps cook meals, package them in boxes and deliver them to some 700 local families receiving food aid through the “Table of Imam Zain al-Abidin,” a kitchen and food distribution project set up by Hezbollah to provide for the needy during Ramadan.
“We take pride in being the servants of these people,” Khuraizat said. “We are servants of the people. We hope they accept this service.”
The project is named after Imam Zain al-Abidin, the great-grandson of the Prophet Mohammad and a figure revered in particular by Shiites who was known for delivering aid and food secretly to the poor.
The great hall near the Rawdat al-Shahidain memorial was not far from a neighborhood struck by a car bomb attack last month in Tayyouneh.
But the mood was different here, the smell of massive piles of all kinds of fruits and vegetables filling the air. Female volunteers stuffed plastic bags with green beans, cauliflowers, eggplants, radishes, oranges and other produce, as children scurried around wearing stickers that said “khadim,” or servant of the poor.
One end of the hall sported portraits of Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini and Ayatollah Khamenei, while on the other end the portraits of Hezbollah’s leaders – Secretary-General Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, Imad Mughniyeh, Abbas al-Musawi and Sheikh Ragheb Harb – hung above dozens of volunteers.
The walls were adorned with Quranic verses, some praising those who feed the needy, orphans and prisoners of war.
Hezbollah carried out a survey to identify the needy families that would receive the aid in four of Beirut’s poorer neighborhoods – Ghobeiri, Shiyah, Horsh Beirut and Sabra.
Sheikh Abbas Harakeh, the Hezbollah official in charge of the program, said that 700 families were identified and earmarked for assistance. One third of them are Sunnis.
The aid program, organized by Hezbollah’s Beirut branch, includes several components. The first is a basic package delivered to the families at the start and middle of Ramadan, which includes supplies like ghee, oil and rice. The campaign also provides direct financial assistance to some families.
The party also provides a weekly package of various vegetables and fruits to the families, delivered to their homes.
“Whatever fruits the rich man eats, the poor man eats too, without discrimination,” Harakeh said.
Hezbollah volunteers prepare 2,100 meals a day that include rice, vegetables, salads and sweets and deliver them to the families. They also distribute a weekly allowance of meat – between three and five kilograms, depending on the size of the family.
At the end of the month, the volunteers will also distribute clothes – a tradition of Eid, the festival marking the end of Ramadan.
Harakeh said that this year district committees have been set up to seek out wealthier individuals in the neighborhoods and convince them to donate to the poorer families. Hezbollah provided seed money to get the project started.
Harakeh estimates the cost of each of the 2,100 daily meals at about $6. The vegetable and fruit allowances cost $25,000-$30,000 a week, and the meat costs about $5,000 a week.
The new scheme is intended to build solidarity within the neighborhoods, he said.
Harakeh said the project’s aim is to show a different facet of Islam – the essence of which is caring for the needy and serving people, something obscured by rising extremism.
Among the details of the aid program he adds stories and sayings from an earlier age. One is of the Prophet Mohammad’s nephew hearing an adage that someone who strives to serve his brother is as one who worshipped God for 7,000 years. Another is by Sayyeda Zainab, the Prophet’s daughter, who said the good of one’s neighbor precedes that of one’s own home.
Harakeh said the kitchen project is intended to build “positive accumulations” among society – as a foil to extremism.
“Helping the poor is different from the image being presented of Islam, which is harming Islam,” he said, adding that politics and sectarianism have tinged all of society.
“Someone who lives in Holland or Germany sees Islam like this,” he said, referring to rising extremism. “Their media also purposely shows that this is Islam, even though they know this isn’t Islam.”
“You have to be a partner in creating a positive culture in society,” he added.