From bicycles to doorstep dinners, Arabs are finding new ways to help the most vulnerable during Ramadan with gatherings banned due to coronavirus
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By Ban Barkawi
AMMAN, April 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - It's a time of year when homeless and isolated people in the Middle East can count on hot meals and friendly conversations with strangers.
Many could experience neither this Ramadan because of coronavirus lockdowns. And those who do will depend on volunteers willing to risk their health to reach the vulnerable.
Shuttered mosques, curfews and bans on mass prayers from Iraq to Morocco have overshadowed Islam's holiest month which begins on around Friday.
Some 320 million Muslims in countries like Iran and Tunisia will face enforced separation at a time when socializing is almost sacred.
Restrictions on gatherings have forced those organising community iftars - the evening meal in which Muslims break their fast - to find new ways to reach those in need from Syrian refugees to laid-off migrant workers in Gulf Arab states.
In the United Arab Emirates where summer temperatures climb above 50 degrees, Ramadan fridges stocked by residents are normally placed in car parks and shopping malls allowing laborers to grab food and drinks as needed. Not this year.
Roadside Ramadan tables that would groan under the weight of samosas and meat dishes for passersby unable to afford their own meals are banned in many North African countries to curb the virus.
In Egypt, where ten million people live in slums and survive on the streets, the meals can be a lifeline.
"I went through one Ramadan while I was on the street and thank God I managed to fast," said 40-year-old Hamdi Ali of the homeless Cairo charity, Together to Save a Human.
"There were kind souls who would come to me at iftar and give me food. There were Ramadan tables where I could eat, and a mosque where I could go to use the bathroom. This year will be harder for homeless people than ever before," he said.
Across the Arab world, people are using hashtags like #Feed_Your_Brother to encourage others to help the hungry and to leave home-cooked Ramadan meals on their doorsteps for the homeless.
In Morocco, dozens of informal workers renting rooms in the southern city of Inezgane found themselves living on the streets when coronavirus measures forced their employers to close shop.
A local homeless charity acted fast: turning a disused gym hall into a shelter to house the workers during Ramadan.
"With transport halted, they weren't able to return to their own cities so we rounded them up and gave them shelter, medical care and other basic needs," said Ibrahim Naja, president of the Association for Good.
Others are turning to bicycles with hundreds of volunteers in Cairo heading out on donated bikes to deliver meals to those in need in the Arab World's largest city.
COUNTING ON KINDNESS
Beyond cities, travel restrictions make reaching people in remote farming villages nearly impossible.
Hurghada Gives, an Egyptian charity that organises donations to poor rural families, is headquartered in a seaside city where well-stocked supermarkets prepare Ramadan donation bundles containing rice, sugar and pasta.
But the communities the group serves are a five-hour-drive down highways that are blocked by police.
"Ramadan traditionally has been very busy for us - unfortunately not this year," said founder Zoe Shutler.
Millions in the Middle East living on the edge of poverty will depend on neighbours and friends to get by, said Alaa Hamed, founder of New Life, an online movement that helps Egypt's homeless.
"There are people who would rather have a free meal instead of spending they could save for other necessities," said Hamed.
"Poverty is so widespread these days, there are people who will rummage through garbage to eat. But Ramadan brings out people's kindness - everyone will do something to help."
(Reporting by Ban Barkawi @banbarkawi; Editing by Tom Finn. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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