For the past five years, Safari owner Maymuuna (Mona) Birjeeb and chef Shakib Farah have celebrated Ramadan at their Harlem restaurant with customers breaking fast and celebrating and by donating food to the community and mosque. Their restaurant, believed to be New York’s only serving Somali cuisine, has been a gathering place. This year, things have been different, as they have for Muslims around the world, who find themselves observing more in isolation and without the togetherness that accompanies iftar. You could say this is doubly true for Birjeeb and Farah as they try to navigate a crippled industry while observing the holy month and, despite the possibility of losing their restaurant, giving back.
Mona Birjeeb: Today we’re just staying home, because we’re closed Monday and Tuesday, so we’re arranging what’s the next step? Who we are going to donate our next meal to? This is our day off even though we stay home and work, and we’re fasting for Ramadan, you know.
We are giving our own meals to the hospitals and reaching out ourselves. So far, we’ve given 100 meals to Harlem Hospital and to NYU Langone, too. We are choosing ones that are in the community. Not every day, because we cannot afford that, but somebody was asking us why don’t we GoFundMe or something like that? I was like, “Ah, can you do it?” Because we don’t know how, we didn’t even think about it.
One customer ordered from us to help, she just remembered us, and we donated. I said, “Thank you for remembering us,” because I was hurt. She almost cried. I know that customer just from the way she says who she is, because I helped her son do homework.
Shakib Farah: She was actually getting money from her friends and her family; she was doing fundraising.
Birjeeb: But otherwise, it’s us only. We haven’t gotten donations from anyone else; we haven’t gotten the support we need. And, you know, the time of the year is Ramadan, and Ramadan is all about giving. This epidemic — people need us — whenever we have more and they have less, we just have to give to them. I know we cannot afford it, but, hey, at least we can give a meal to somebody, and that’s helpful.
During Ramadan, as well, we give out food for the community to come and eat. We’re going to have that. We usually do it the last ten days of Ramadan, so this year, I don’t know how it’s going to be with the social distancing. Before, we used to invite people. Probably they’re going to come grab and go. Or we’ll have to have it outside and give the meal. Just tell them we’re giving food away. We’re planning for that. We’ll do 100 meals next Thursday, March 21. But if we get funding, we can do more. We also used to give food to the mosque, too, but the mosque is closed.
Running a restaurant right now — where to start? It’s like a nightmare, and you don’t get the support you need. Our sales are down 90 percent, and being immigrant and, I guess, black, is harder. No one pays attention to you; we didn’t get anything — literally. I cut my staff; it’s just me and my husband, Shakib, who is cooking all the food.
You see restaurants doing these grab-and-go hot meals with funding — everyone’s doing it — and it’s coming to Harlem, too. But somehow the African restaurant is excluded. Even in Harlem — it’s crazy. Everyone at the African restaurant, we talk to each other, we try to help out, none of us got what we were supposed to get. We live here in Harlem. When I talk to people in the African community — I have a little more information, so they are looking to me — they say the same things. They aren’t getting help.
Farah: Obviously, we are talking to the other African restaurateurs in the area, and they are in the same predicament to us. We’ve only watched the news about who gets what and who is doing it; it’s pretty much the connected establishment.
Especially during Ramadan, we used to get the events, catering, the customers used to come and break the fast with us. We don’t get that anymore. And, of course, the customers who used to support us, they don’t come around anymore. Because, one, they don’t have the money. Two, they are scared, too. But every day, we keep going even though we get one customer or no customers. I don’t want to just give up yet.
Farah: One of the things, as well, we were expecting — the sad part — was the payroll protection. A lot of people did it with their accountants and stuff, so we were trying to get some sort of help from those programs which were passed within the federal or state government. We’re kind of thinking that we get overlooked, but we cannot lose hope in life. We just better keep moving and working.
Ramadan is kind of a healing process and kind of a purifying. It’s kind of appealing to a sense, a part of the holiday is, you’re going to have to emotionally come back to God and think about the positive things and the better things and be more generous and giving.
Birjeeb: I would like to add that Ramadan teaches you discipline, too. It empties your stomach and feeds your soul. It’s a spiritual thing, too. Even though we don’t see our customers, spiritually we are all fasting and connecting. That spirit is still alive. Even though we don’t have the resources or the support we’re supposed to have, that’s what keeping us going. I don’t know how I’m going to feel next month, to be honest. But this month, I saw, “Wow, during Ramadan, charity is giving. Maybe God is testing us.”
We don’t have money in our account —
Farah: We have the rent and all these other things piling up —
Birjeeb: But maybe there is a lesson for us. The first responders are doing a great job. We don’t want to just sit and look. If I have one meal, I give it to them before I eat. ’Cause they’re doing harder work than us. They’re saving lives. That’s why I don’t want to wait for anybody to give me money so I can feed the people I am supposed to feed, no matter what. If they don’t want to give to me, that’s fine. But I’ll do what I can.
Farah: Absolutely — we feel we have to be feeding people.
Birjeeb: That’s one thing during Ramadan we are required to do.