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Muslim Students Bring Food, Conversation to Florida Homeless

A member of Project Downtown talks to a homeless man in Tampa, Florida
A member of Project Downtown talks to a homeless man in Tampa, Florida

In the southern U.S. state of Florida, a group of American Muslim students is running a non-profit organization called Project Downtown. The project's goal is to help the poor, poor people of all backgrounds and cultures. Our correspondent went down to the city of Tampa, Florida to learn more about Project Downtown and the Muslim students who belong to it.

Like just about any major city in the United States, the city of Tampa has its share of homeless people. But it also has people who are reaching out to help Tampa's homeless.

"We are here because, in Islam, we are supposed to feed the hungry," said one of the students. "So that's our purpose here. That's all."

The students belong to Project Downtown, an organization that started about two years ago in Miami and now has branches other U.S. cities. The Tampa members of Project Downtown say what motivated them was seeing people in need.

"Project Downtown was started by a couple of groups and a couple of university students back in Miami, and people have been gathering money after seeing a problem in the community, went out and bought sandwiches," said another student. "They went to the local city hall and started feeding."

The city of Tampa has almost 350,000 people. It is estimated that about 11,000 of these are homeless. That's about three percent of the population. For the students of Project Downtown, the religion of the people they are helping does not matter. What matters is that they are in need. Jill Moreida is a member of Project Downturn.

"We come up to them," said Jill Moreida. "We don't just give them food and walk away. We don't feed them like they're at the zoo. We make friends with them; we talk with them. We interact with them. Week after week after week. And we know stories about their family. We know when they're sick. We get to develop relationships with them."

"Oh, we wait for them! We wait! You see, we waited in the rain," said a homeless man. "We got caught in the rain! We feel beautiful with them coming."

As the relationships develop, Jill says, the homeless gain a new understanding of Islam.

"They say they cannot believe how amazing the Muslims are," said Moreida. "And it's acts like that, that not only are we serving...we do it for the sake of Allah, when we're feeding them. But there's a bigger message being brought, and it's exposing a whole new realm of people to Islam. Teaching them to not be afraid of us, to not have that stereotype that we're going to hurt them or anything."

Project Downtown is one of several outreach efforts sponsored by the Muslim community of Florida. Its funding comes from other Muslim groups in the state, including the Tampa Bay Muslim Alliance. Dr. Hussein Nagamiya, a cardiologist, is head of the alliance.

"Our main idea is to feed the hungry, to clothe the poor, to address their needs, because these are homeless people, and they don't have anywhere to go," said Hussein Nagamiya. "So, we give them conveyances such as bicycles that were given away. We conduct their [medical] tests. Some of them may never have a test in the entire year. We detect diseases for them and send them on to free clinics, etc."

In addition to helping the poor and teaching people about Islam, organizations like Project Downtown and the Tampa Bay Muslim Alliance hope to achieve another goal: Showing their fellow Americans that, in the words of Dr. Nagamiya, the vast majority of American Muslims are good citizens who make positive contributions to the United States.