Sacramento Muslims Assist Habitat for Humanity Project
By Ras H. Siddiqui
Habitat for Humanity of Greater Sacramento has been on our reporting radar for quite some time now. It is getting well-known for doing some great work in the communities it touches and more specifically its Build for Unity project has started to change lives. One can agree that the lucky residents of the new homes being built under this banner are the ultimate beneficiaries of this effort, but that would not be a complete assessment of its impact. It is the journey that makes these homes possible and the people involved in financing, planning and building them that also deserve some attention. And that is what occurred at 1045 Neal Road in Sacramento, California on June 22nd as over a hundred people gathered in the sweltering heat to celebrate the completion of two homes and to participate in the handing over of their keys to two immigrant families whose dream of ownership came true.
Build for Unity, which can take credit for this achievement, is a unique interfaith program, which made this all possible in a few months, with the support of 180 faith congregations and individuals who donated more than $176,000. Since this event was held during the Islamic month of Ramadan, it would be prudent to mention here that the Muslim community of our Greater Sacramento region added valuable support to this home-building (both financially and physically) along with Christian, Jew and Sikh friends. And to honor everyone who made this all possible this event was merged into a Ramadan breaking of the fast (Iftar) meal. It also needs to be stressed that two non-Muslim families, immigrants from Ukraine, were the ultimate beneficiaries of this entire effort on this occasion
People from many backgrounds and faiths walked in to the venue to mingle and to first hear some Songs of Faith by Steve Russel. Leah Miller was emcee for the evening and she started things off by inviting Father. Darius Maczuk of the St John Vianney Parish to start the formalities with an opening prayer. Leah returned next with hints for everyone on how to stay cool in the almost record heat. She also provided a detailed background of Build for Unity, a Habitat for Humanity effort, and our purpose for being here at this event. She pointed out the two new and beautiful homes behind her and called their soon-to-be occupants, the Maksymchuck and Vozniuk families to join us up front. She said that we are here to celebrate both the completion of these homes and what they represent. She also said that 1,000volunteers (from all backgrounds) put in 10,000 volunteer hours to build these homes. People from every faith came out and made this possible. Miller added that this effort makes a counter statement to the negative rhetoric that is currently going around in our nation. She also took the opportunity to introduce Jeff vonKaenel of the Sacramento News and Review who took the lead in incubating this Build for Unity project in Sacramento and beyond.
Jeff vonKaenel is no stranger to area activism. He stepped up just after 9/11 with a Call for Unity appeal to the benefit of our entire Sacramento community which this writer had the opportunity to cover over the years. Jeff thanked the many organizations and individuals who put in over 10,000 hours making this all possible and really special. He added that what we have here is not only two beautiful homes but we have created a dwelling which incorporates the heart and soul of America and this is important because America includes all of us, every race, every creed or orientation. We are all a part of America, said Jeff. When there is an attack on one of us, it is an attack on all of us. So when a bully comes up and goes after our Muslim brothers and sisters, it is important that we stand up for them. What we did here in Sacramento (with these homes) is something that we can all be proud of, he said.
Fawzia Keval representing the Council for Islamic Relations followed with a speech highlighting Islamophobia in America. She spoke of an email sent by community leader Rashid Ahmad, reflecting on some grim happenings, and calling for collective action and interfaith unity in the face of senseless terror and violence. She elaborated that in his message Rashid had pointed out that we are not defined by the conditions we face but by how we respond. Keval said that Jeff vonKaenel (of Habitat for Humanity) came up with a perfect response on how to bring people together, to build community unity and hope. She said that the idea of building homes was excellent but raising the $176,000 was to her a daunting task. Fundraising took place in churches, mosques, synagogues and temples throughout Sacramento and the objective was received. She added that the building of these homes created a feeling of oneness and harmony. Keval pointed out that interdependence is strength and not a weakness and that the community is a partnership. It is all of us, she said.
Cantor Julie Steinberg from Congregation B-nai Israel who also happens to be the First Lady of Sacramento (she is the Mayor’s wife) next started with words of welcome (Blessed are those who come) in Hebrew. That is exactly everyone here today is - “Blessed”, she added. She said that we have come from many communities for a common event, to create community, a home, to nurture the dignity of each life. We feel the strength in our unity. She spoke of a concept of repairing the world. God’s light stored in ten vessels which could not be contained due to the power that they held. Each one of us carries within the spark of the divine, she said. She added that these two homes here are a testament to the power of unity.
Laine Himmelmann of Habitat for Humanity introduced the Maksymchuck and Vozniuk families and a gift-giving ceremony followed. This is a rich tradition at Habitat for Humanity where representatives of groups who built these homes present symbolic gifts to the families who will occupy them. All who participated need to be congratulated and jumping the gun here a bit, in their acceptance of the gifts and after receiving the keys to their houses, the wife/mother figures of each family gave such genuine and emotional speeches of their own that many were almost moved to tears.
Manal Keval, a young Muslim gave a detailed description of Ramadan and the Adhan or prayer call was performed by Usama Kamal. The event ended with a nice potluck meal and a tour of the two houses. The housing needs of two young families were fulfilled here, and for a while here all seemed well with our world. Just imagine for a moment such a unified humanity on a global scale for longer periods?