Habibe Husain

Turkey

Founder of Rahima Foundation Food Bank

My name is Habibe Mir Husain, and I am from Turkey. I came to the United States as a foreign exchange student in 1962 when I was in high school. I spent a year in upstate New York with an American family in a small town.

After going back to Turkey to finish high school, I returned to the U.S. to attend the University of New Mexico on a scholarship from a group of American business ladies. I enrolled in a pharmacy school. My intention was to go to medical school, but I realized that medical school would be very long- and my scholarship was for five years.

After four years at UNM, I transferred to Temple University’s School of Pharmacy in Philadelphia, because they had many more programs there for working in the industry rather than becoming a drugstore pharmacist. My scholarship continued there. I met my husband, a Pakistani, in Philadelphia. He was attending the University of Pennsylvania. International students would get together once in a while and that’s where we met.

Soon after, we got married, I did my internship and worked for one year. After I had my first children who were twins, a boy and a girl, I stopped working; I decided that until they were in college, I just could not go back to work. I did do some work at Stanford University Hospital for a while after moving to California, but then I stayed home and raised my children.

My intention was really not to stay in the United States, but to return home to Turkey. When I married my husband, we didn’t know what would be home: Pakistan or Turkey. I didn’t speak his language and he didn’t speak Turkish, so we decided that the United States should be home. We applied for our citizenship and both of us became citizens. We have now been in the United States for over 54 years, my entire adult life.

Once my twins went to school I had one more child, a girl. After she finished high school I started thinking about what I was going to do with my life.

It was during our holy month of Ramadan that I was really contemplating this. On the 21st night of the holy month, I had a vision/dream that I should devote my life to serving others. I didn’t know what that meant because I was already involved in the community- I had started Sunday schools and was active with women’s programs- but it wasn’t anything formal.  What was the service I was supposed to do?

Soon after I had this dream, I heard about a large group of Somali refugees who were coming to our community. That’s when it clicked in me that maybe I needed to help these people. How to help, though?  I decided to first get to know them and then see what their needs were. I soon realized that although the community was assisting these refugees, after two or three months these people were forgotten. I felt that the least I could do was to find a way to collect groceries to deliver to their houses.

I asked my friends to host brunches to discuss what we could do. They thought this was really fantastic. I suggested that every time we get together socially for brunch, each of us should bring a sack of rice, or sack of flour, some pasta, canned goods, or oil, etc. for me to take to these families.

Our brunch meetings went on for about two years. My friends were very responsive. I did collect quite a few things. I would go and pick up food from friends if they couldn’t come to the brunches. Then I would bring these nonperishable food items to my carport, sort them into baskets and take these to people’s houses. The Somali refugees were very, very appreciative. They really relied on this food because they had not yet started receiving food stamps or cash aid so this food was very much appreciated. It was meeting their needs.

A couple of years later there came another large group of immigrants, this time from Bosnia and Kosovo. This was in the mid 90’s when people were coming to escape the war there. By then, I was packing up food every week in my little truck and delivering it from house to house to over 100 families. Once a month, I would have these brunches in a friend’s house and I would tell them how what they were giving me was helping these families.

We soon realized that I could not go on with door-to-door delivering. My friends preferred to give money rather than buy food, but I was concerned that people might think that it’s easy to abuse money. With food donations, though, no one would think that just the two of us, my husband and I, were eating 100 bags of rice. I didn’t want to collect money.

When the number of families increased steadily, my husband and I got a book that showed us how to apply to become a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. We decided to register it as a charitable and educational foundation, and named it “Rahima Foundation”, which means Mercy, Compassion, and Justice in Arabic. Once we registered, my friends were relieved, saying that they would much rather give $20 or $30 a month than to buy the food themselves.

The  work we were doing spread by word of mouth. Non-refugee families who were going through difficulties started coming and applying and I was still operating from my carport. When it would rain in the middle of the night, I would go and put plastic on the groceries. Then we moved to a house in San Jose which had a garage- this was an improvement. I didn’t have to worry that the groceries were going to get wet.

Soon, people were offering to come help pack the groceries, and I started getting volunteers. We divided the town into sections and organized our volunteers to deliver groceries to families in each section.

After the second time the war happened in Afghanistan, more Afghani refugees came to the Bay Area. I started thinking that we needed to rent a place. We found a 400 square foot little place next to a grocery store and rented it at $1 a square foot, $400 a month. We didn’t have any other overhead except buying the groceries. As the number of food recipients grew, it became quite challenging to deliver the groceries door to door, so we asked our clients to come to us, and we began distributing from our facility.

Around that time, word spread in the community that this was a non-profit charitable organization that needed help. One gentleman, who used to work at Cisco, had heard about our work for the past four years, and that we had been doing it quietly, without publicity. He suggested that we apply for some grants. I didn’t know how to do this, or what grants there might be, so he offered to ask friends at Cisco for advice. He soon called to say that there was a $10,000 grant available and he offered to help us apply for it. We got the $10,000 grant- and this was a big, big boost for us.

A young lady approached me wanting to work as my assistant. She knew computers and I did not. Her husband, also a computer person, made us a website and enabled us to properly keep our financial records, which I had previously kept in handwritten files. We were now able to put our records on a computer. 

We published in a local newsletter how much food we distributed monthly and how many families we were supporting. The same gentleman from Cisco came again and offered to help us become a Second Harvest Food Bank pantry.  We started looking for a bigger place, and we found one with a few offices and a 2,500 square foot warehouse. The rent was $2,000. We moved there and became a pantry of Second Harvest Food Bank. We now started getting three to four tons of food from them every month, including fresh produce. We continued to purchase kosher and halal items ourselves.

As the rents continued to rise in the Bay Area, more local people started applying for assistance from Rahima. We soon realized that our space was becoming too small for us, so we moved to SBIA, South Bay Islamic Association, to a larger facility. The rent was a little stiff for us, over $6,000, but somehow we pulled through. We realized after 18 years of doing this in a makeshift way that we needed to put some funds aside for the future. I always used to say as a mother, as a wife, how do I manage my household? When the paycheck comes, we don’t go and spend the whole paycheck- we put a little aside for future. So I applied the same principle: every month, I began putting a little money aside. Our dream was to buy a place of our own, and sure enough, after 23 years the dream became possible.

We found a wonderful place that we could afford- this was like a miracle. We were able to pursue it. We moved to our current space two years ago.  Today, we provide 13-14 tons of groceries to over 500 families every month from our warehouse- that’s about 2,000 people/month.

The need has changed in the last few years. There are many people in need, not only refugees. The homeless population in our area has increased substantially.  

We don’t have cooked food here, but we do keep things like peanut butter, crackers, bread, tuna fish and juice, food that the homeless can take. We also partner with four shelters where we provide hot meals twice a month to the homeless.

Ironically, food insecurity in Silicon Valley, one of the richest areas in the US, is at 24 percent; where nationwide it is ~12%, and world-wide it is ~11%. The main reason for this disparity is the high rents in Silicon Valley.

Another program we started in 2018, is to provide healthy snacks for the school children who cannot afford them. We are currently providing over 1,100 snacks every month to public school children in need.

Recently, we learned that there are thousands of refugees in the Sacramento area, and we went there to evaluate. We talked with a couple of organizations that are working with them, and they confirmed there are many refugees in that area.  So we started two programs to help them. First, we realized that their biggest need was to purchase necessities like diapers, hygiene items, etc. that were not covered by the food stamps they were receiving. We have started this year, 2019, to provide gift cards to ~1200 families so they can take care of their needs. Second, we have started a drive to provide 1000 of the 5000 backpacks needed for the refugee children in August, before their school year begins.

We know that there is need everywhere; however, as they say, “charity begins at home”. We are therefore focused on helping people in need in our own neighborhoods and communities first, and then expand from there.

I don’t know about the politics of immigration. This is not going to get better, I think. It might get even worse because it’s not just wars now that are displacing people, but climate change is going to displace many people; there will be a lot of immigration.  With climate change, countries will close their borders, like some countries may already be doing. Naturally, they want to take care of their own population, but climate change and water scarcity- this is what worries me because it’s going to cause many people to start moving.

I have hope for America- somehow America knows how to bounce back when faced with challenges. You cannot find American democracy anywhere else. My hope is that this will prevail here, and the decision makers will be compassionate and people of the heart, that will make a difference.

I love the freedom of America. Freedom to practice your own religion, even though these recent years have seen the rise of Islamophobia. Still I’m not really hesitant to go out with my hair covered up.  Personally, I have not really witnessed discrimination- yeah, sometimes some dirty looks, but you have to ignore those things.

If I were sitting face-to-face with some politicians, or some people who are very much against having immigrants come to our society, I would tell them that we should all look at the history of this nation. This nation is an immigrant nation. The United States was built on the immigrants’ backs as well as on their minds.   From all parts of the world, immigrants have come and contributed to build our nation’s infrastructure, and have brought innovation with them. 

We need all kinds of people. That’s what has made this nation the greatest nation on earth. Hopefully, it will continue to be.