For the last year, if one thing has been in short supply it’s a sense of community. Sure, we’ve filled the void with virtual celebrations and the occasional small gathering, but our ability to gather in-person has been largely hampered by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. There’s cause for celebration, however, as outdoor capacity limits expand and vaccinations mean more people can get together.
On Saturday, May 15, members of South Jersey’s Muslim community came together, in-person to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, a feast that marks the end of Ramadan’s month-long fast. Saima Bhutta hosted the celebration at her Moorestown home and used the celebration as a way to introduce Moorestown council members to their Muslim constituents.
When Bhutta moved to town around 15 years ago, she knew a handful of Muslims, but she said within the last 10 years or so, a whole new group of Muslims have made their way to Moorestown largely in part for the school system. Naturally a people person, Bhutta has made a concerted effort to get to know her fellow South Jersey Muslims.
She said after 9/11, life became harder for Muslims, so she decided to get involved in New Jersey politics as well as community service. Saturday’s Eid celebration was her latest form of community outreach.
Eid is a special holiday in the Muslim culture, which marks the culmination of a month of fasting during Ramadan. Bhutta typically hosts a celebration, but given COVID-19, she wasn’t certain what regulations would be in place when the day rolled around. Luckily, with the limits on outdoor restrictions lifted, she was keen to host an outdoor brunch.
Bhutta serves on the newly-founded Moorestown Equity, Inclusion and Diversity Task Force, which council member Quinton Law helps oversee. Law had previously reached out to Bhutta about potentially connecting with Moorestown Muslims on a Zoom call or arranging some other sort of introductory meeting.
“Saima is an absolute force of nature and understands exactly what it means to bring people together,” Law said.
Because scheduling a Zoom call during Ramadan posed some difficulties, Bhutta came up with an alternate idea. Instead, she invited Law and his fellow council members to attend her Eid brunch.
She said for a community to get their voice heard, they should bring in other people. Bhutta explained the best way to cultivate respect for their traditions is to educate people on what they’re doing and why.
“I believe that we should really accentuate the positive in every culture and share it with one another,” Bhutta said.
So, Law, Moorestown Mayor Nicole Gillespie and Deborah Cornavaca, Gov. Phil Murphy’s Outreach Director, joined Bhutta and her guests. Bhutta along with one of her fellow community members presented Law with a traditional ajrak and cap from the Sind Provence of Pakistan as a traditional sign of appreciation for joining as their guest. Bhutta said they were touched by his desire to reach out to the Musilm community to make them feel welcome, so they wanted to do the same for him.
In addition to celebrating over food, Bhutta asked all of her guests to bring a donation for Providence House, which helps victims of domestic violence. She said with around 150 people attending throughout the day, she was overwhelmed by the amount of items they collected by day’s end.
Gillespie said Bhutta’s Eid celebration was a great opportunity for her and Law to get to learn more from and to develop relationships with members of the Muslim community. She said because there isn’t a mosque in town, it’s harder to get a sense of how many Muslim community members reside in town.
“I didn’t realize how strong the Muslim community was in Moorestown,” Gillespie said.
Law said by him and Gillespie going and talking with locals, his hope is that they feel like there is now an open line of communication between them and the town council. He said the crux of what he wants to do with his time on council is to represent everyone in the community, and so, he was eager to get to know everyone in attendance.
“That event was everything that building community is all about: showing up for one another and learning from one another and celebrating our differences, giving each other the space to celebrate our own cultures,” Law said.