WASHINGTON, DC - When Pakistani immigrant Kazi Mannan came to the U.S. in 1996 as an impoverished young adult, he could only dream about success. He worked long hours in a series of tough jobs, saved money and learned everything he could about working and living in America.
His hard work paid off. After more than 20 years, he’s now a successful entrepreneur and owner of a popular Pakistani-Indian restaurant just a few blocks from the White House.
But what’s most remarkable about his story is what he’s doing in his restaurant every day.
Mannan offers free meals to the homeless and anyone else in need.
Paying it forward
He says it’s his way of heeding the principles of his Muslim faith.
“I know God is happy with me, what I do, because I do it with my pure heart, with my pure intention, to uplift others without seeking any reward, any recognition,” he says. “I don’t need any awards, I don't need any money. I just want to please Him.”
Mannan helps the needy he says, because growing up poor in Pakistan, he knows what it’s like to be hungry.
“I have nine siblings and [we didn’t have] much to eat … when you are poor and you [don’t] have things that other people have, when you get it, you want to appreciate, you want to share with others,” he said.
His desire to share deepened as he worked as a limousine driver in the nation’s capital. He saw homeless people on the street, day and night, in all kinds of weather — looking for food in trash cans.
The experience had an impact.
“I don't want to see another human being going through the poverty that I went through. I don't want to see another human being going through the hunger that I went through. I want them to have that feeling that they were being accepted, so they can come and sit here and eat with respect,” he says.
Just like family
His message is simple. Come to Sakina Halal Grill, which is named after his late mother, ask for food, use the restroom, and sit for as long as you want.
“We will love you and respect you the same way we respect a paying guest. We will treat you like family,” he said.
Marchellor Lesueur, who is homeless, has been coming to the restaurant every day for the past eight months.
“I think that he's a saint. He’s a beautiful man,” he says about Mannan. “My stomach was growling, I was looking for a blessing, then he popped up, gave me a card and invited me to a restaurant for lunch. And I was so overwhelmed and happy I couldn’t wait to get here, and ever since then I've been coming.”
Hegehiah Griakley is also a regular. He was finishing up a generous portion of rice and chicken, which he described as two meals in one.
“This is more than lunch," he said. "They give you enough to feed you for the rest of the day I think. The food is great, the people are nice. I wouldn’t mind working here!”
Griakley says he once asked Mannan what he could give him in return for the free food. “Because most people expect you to give back.”
“But he said 'no, no, no, no, no!' He just wanted me to have a good meal,” he recalls. “I couldn’t believe that. It was so nice. I loved it.”
Mannan estimates that he’s provided more than 80,000 free meals since the restaurant opened in 2013.
And when he’s not feeding the needy in his restaurant, Mannan delivers meals to local shelters and churches, and organizes food and clothing drives at nearby parks.
“Some people tell me ‘homeless people are using drugs and you’re feeding them; that's bad.’" To which he responds, “For you, it’s bad, for me, it's joy. … I see a person who’s fallen to the ground. Whatever problem they went through to become homeless, it’s not my job to judge — my job is to give them respect and love.”
His paying customers are still his main business. Many of them contribute towards the free meals... and support his cause.
First time customer Geralyn Nathe-Evans was visiting from Minnesota when she read about Mannan’s mission in an article.
“I have a deep interest in social justice, Catholic social teaching … and so to be part of something bigger than myself, my son and I chose to come to lunch here today to support and be a small part of a great thing,” she said.
Serving your fellow man
Mannan uses food as a way to help his fellow man, in practice of his faith. He urges others to do the same with their talents.
“If you’re a medical doctor, can you love him through your practice? If you are a lawyer, can you love him through your practice? Be kind and be compassionate to your client?” he asks.
In doing so, he believes “we will all prosper and flourish” as a society.
Meantime, he says he will continue to nourish both body and soul of all who walk through the door of his restaurant.
“Just uplifting others is a joy for me. It doesn’t matter [what] color, religion you belong to. We are all human. I am focusing on humanity. I'm bringing humanity together and this is my mission.”