There’s a basic principle that we were all taught when we are young: It’s better to give than receive. In case you needed reminding, you can read how one woman from Dearborn, Mich., has spent every Sunday for the past four years in Detroit feeding the homeless. Nahid Ayoub — a Muslim, a Syrian, a Lebanese woman, an American — all represent who she is, but if you ask her how she identifies herself, she will say she is a human who believes in humanitarian work.
After decades of working for corporate America, Nahid woke up one day and felt something was missing. She created a Detroit chapter of a non-profit organization whose main mission is to feed and provide care and shelter for the homeless, called Project Dignity. It was through Project Dignity that Nahid found her calling in life — to give back and connect with people on a personal level. Join us as we learn about Nahid’s journey.
Muslim Girl: What inspired you to start Project Dignity?
Nahid Ayoub: I felt an emptiness. I had all the material things in the world. I was making a six figure salary and got to travel a lot, but it felt like something was missing. When you’re that content and feel that kind of emptiness, it feels selfish. I felt that way for three years. I got caught up in going to basketball games because it was a part of my job, but it all didn’t matter. I still gave to the poor back then, but it didn’t feel like it was enough for me.
What mission do you want to accomplish with this organization?
My mission is to feed hungry people and provide them with the necessities they need.
What types of materials are you supplying to the homeless and how much does it cost you?
“I spend $300-$400 buying food like fried chicken, 30 large pizzas, and four trays of fries. I also would buy plates, forks, tables, and napkins, toiletries, and blankets.
Do you f-30eel we should ever want to give up on them?
No. Wherever and however I can help them, I will. There is one memory I have of when volunteers and I went to the Rosa Parts transit center in the cold winter and gave out McDonalds gift cards. Imagine walking into the Rosa Parks transit center with a bunch of hijabis carrying boxes.
Cops looked as us and approached me asking what was in the box. I opened it for him and showed that there were toiletries inside. I told him I had a problem of not having tables to put my stuff on. He went and got me five tables. He asked if I was coming back. Another cop told me I needed permission from the city of Detroit. He later said, “you can do whatever you want” after I educated him.
Would you say you have developed a strong bond with these people?
Yes! These people are family to me. I love them. I get my strength from them. Their smile is priceless.
I saw a little kid stealing cupcakes one time and I walked up behind him and tickled him and asked him why. He said he was taking it to Christina, his sister, and that she would be home the next day. I had a feeling he wanted to tell me something, so I took him in my truck and asked him where she was. He said she was with the booger man. I took him with me and drove to the house. I took my phone out and took a picture of the house and passed it on to a detective.
They watched the house for days and I found out later that the little boy was trying to tell me that his sister was being sold for heroin in exchange for sex. That was the worst Sunday for me, because I care about those people. Even when I had to go to the morgue and identify Jane Doe or a John Doe, it doesn’t hurt as much as knowing that a 12-year-old girl is being sexually trafficked. These are also kids that are being abused at home; your home is supposed to be the safest place, but they leave to go be on the streets.
What types of reactions have you received from the people you have helped?
They know I’m a Muslim and they still love me. I’ve heard them swear to each other before, but then they will remember that when I’m around, they show respect to me. I heard one guy talk about me one time and say, “We can’t be disrespectful like this. She’s here every Sunday for the past four years and doesn’t get anything out of it. She could be doing anything else but instead is here with us.”
How important is it for your services to be supplied every week and have you ever missed a Sunday?
They depend on it every week. They have told me that if I miss a Sunday, they miss me. A little girl calls me on Saturdays and always asks me if I will be there. She is so precious and always looks for me there.
Have you ever feared for your safety?
In the beginning when I first started, I did because I didn’t know them so I had some doubts. But we grew to become a family. When fights break out, I will get in between them and stop them. One time it was my birthday and I was at a feeding with them. A fight broke out and I told them that they ruined my birthday and that I was leaving. They ran to me and gave me a hug and said they were sorry. They also make me feel blessed. I’ve learned the beauty of simplicity from them.
Many people have told me not to hug them, but I don’t care. There’s a hadith that says, “Love the poor, bring them near you, and God will bring you near Him on the Day of Resurrection.” So that’s what I think of. I try my best to bring them whatever they need because the Prophet (PBUH) also said, “It’s better to die on your feet than die on your knees.” He warns us to never insult a beggar. During Ramadan, a beggar came to the Prophet every night asking for food. He would give him his food that he was going to break his fast with. And I have broken my fast with the homeless as well.
What types of people have benefited from your services?
I’ve seen people who have been victims of human trafficking, domestic abuse, and drug addictions. I’ve motivated them to want better for themselves and even got one person to commit to sobriety and stop using derogatory language. I remember this one guy who hated me so much and always told me to go away when I would go out looking for him.
I would try and feed him and get him off the streets, but he even wished death on me. One time, he just disappeared and I kept looking for him. I later found him and he looked so different. He had a clean haircut and got himself off the streets and with a job interview.
Do you have a favorite memory with someone you have helped?
Yes, I have many! I met a man whose name was Danny. Danny was a veteran who was almost 60 years old before he passed away. I told him I wanted to help him get a kidney transplant and offered to put him on the list. We were standing in the fields were I feed people and he gave me a hug and said, “I’m almost 60, I’d rather die than take that kidney from a child.”
I also remember this one guy who was in his 70s and he had really blue eyes. He stole a shopping cart full of beer and always told me he loved me. I knew he was an alcoholic. My sister bought him a pair of Toms one time, and he called loved me for that.
He’s the number one person I go looking for because he goes missing a lot. One time when I found him, he had a black eye. He said he got into a fight and someone took his shoes. I thought he was lying and sold them but he came with me to find the person who took his shoes and we did.
How have their struggles in life impacted you?
I always want to make sure they are safe. If one of them goes missing, I will go looking for them. I remember this one person that was a a victim of domestic violence and when I saw her one time, it reminded me why I loved to spend time with these people. I went to go visit her one day and couldn’t find her in a huge crowd, but she found me! She said she recognized me by the perfume I wear. When I saw her, she looked so transformed and gave me a hug. She told me she had gotten a job interview and I was so happy for her.
Has Project Dignity ever done anything special for the holidays?
Yes, during Thanksgiving, we purchased 12 turkeys to feed the homeless and we brought them to the streets. During Christmas, we celebrated the holiday between two shelters and raised $2,200 to buy gifts for the kids. We also bought makeup and accessories for women in the shelter. And during Ramadan, I like to break my fast with them.
What message do you want to tell people through your organization?
I don’t want people to look at homeless people as a lesson to teach your kids with if you don’t do well in school, because that is not why they are here. We the people have failed them and it is inhumane and immoral to look the other way and deny the existence of their issues. Imagine if it were you. You would want someone to be sent your way to come and help you.
We need to understand that this problem should not be so taboo that it cannot be discussed. It shouldn’t be passed off as a controversial political issue, but rather a humanitarian issue that we all should consider.
How do you raise awareness and advocate to help homeless people?
The month of November is no child homeless awareness month. Many volunteers and I have done this for the past two years and slept in a cardboard box on the street in the cold. We want people to know what it is like for these homeless people every day and also understand that we can not turn a blind eye on them. No child belongs on the streets.
If you could tell the people you help one thing, what would it be?
I want them to know that they matter. During these Sundays, we are a family. I want them to know that I love them and that I care.
What goals do you have for Project Dignity in 2017?
If I could financially afford to take all these people in, I would do it in a heart beat. In 2017, we are working to have a shelter to take in homeless people and help them learn basic traits and get their GED.
What would you say to someone who wants to take part in the mission of Project Dignity?
We are more than happy to get as many hands on deck as we can get!
Where can people help donate to the expenses to support “Project Dignity?”
We are always taking donations to create bigger projects and we are currently trying to get approved for a grant. People can go to http://projectdignitymi.org/ also to send donations.