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An Interview with Maryam Chudnoff

In mid-April, as the effects of the pandemic were starting to be felt in Albuquerque, eight women at Albuquerque’s oldest and largest mosque, ICNM (Islamic Center of New Mexico), came together to provide food and other crucial supplies to those in need. While the organization now depends on a steady stream of volunteers, it got off the ground through the efforts of Frozan Popal, Aamna Nayyar, Sabiha Qurashi, Zarafshan Aishah Popal, Mariam Salas and Maryam Chudnoff. This organization, now called the ICNM Sisters Food Program, works within the Islamic community and beyond to help New Mexicans in need. 

The Paper. spoke to Maryam Chudnoff about the group’s ongoing efforts to feed our community, body and soul.

The Paper.: How did this group form? How has it grown over the course of the current health crisis?  

Chudnoff: As people were being laid off and COVID was beginning to affect peoples’ livelihoods, as individuals, we realized that this pandemic has highlighted and multiplied a pre-existing condition in Albuquerque: food and security. As Muslims it is our obligation to make sure that our families and neighbors do not go hungry. 

What services do you provide?   

Initially, we were delivering food to people’s homes or just meeting them in parking lots. People heard about it through word of mouth and our list expanded to 50-plus families in just a couple of weeks. So then we had to regroup and change our process. Following COVID safety guidelines, we now collect and distribute food at the masjid. People drive up, and we either collect or distribute food into vehicles. No one gets out of their cars for either distribution or collection. So from the need to feed our community, it has just grown. COVID has amplified the need. Distributing food is our main priority; but when we can afford it, we also do hygiene packs for people—we try to do toilet paper, paper towels, hand soap, dish soap and some sort of cleaning products … and sometimes even masks based on availability and funding. 

Does your organization proselytize the faith of Islam to those who come to ICNM for this assistance?

No. When people come through, if someone needs food, we feed them. We believe in no questions asked. The only thing we have been collecting data on is how big their families are and their place of origin, because we do serve a diverse population and a huge refugee population, and we want to make sure that we are not just serving the Arab population, or just the Afghan population. If we noticed that we were not getting a lot of Swahili families, maybe it’s because they don’t know that we have this program, and we need to reach out. 

For those who are not well-acquainted with the tenets of Islam, can you explain the role of zakat in the faith? Does this service align with zakat or do you see it as something else? 

So, zakat is mandatory charity. Specifically, it goes to needy Muslim families, and you have to pay a certain amount each year based on your income. On top of that, we are greatly encouraged to always provide charity and community service and to take care of the people around us regardless of faith, background, color. … None of that should matter. We are all equal in the eyes of God and are to treat each other that way. There is a very strong tradition of starting from within and working outwards. So making sure your family has enough food, clothing, shelter.  Then your neighbors. And you work out to the larger community from there. That is how we actually started this process. 

What do you feel have been your greatest accomplishments through this service? What are you all hoping to do in the future?  

I think the fact that these women came together, from delivering food out of our cars, we now have a working contract with ICNM. They have given us a permanent space where we can receive and store food.

Are you collaborating with any other organizations here in New Mexico? If so, how have these alliances borne fruit?

Yes, we have done community collaboration with MoGro [Mobile Grocery], a wonderful food distribution program here in New Mexico, and they have been able to provide us with fresh produce. The first time they delivered to us it was 450 pounds of fresh produce. It’s very significant what they are doing for the community …

The other thing is that now that we are established, we were able to get a grant from Together New Mexico, which allowed us to reach over one hundred families. We are consciously working on maintaining a slow, steady growth; because I would like this program to become sustainable and to become a permanent program rather than just, you know, let’s just get food for people for these few months and then let it peter out. I really want to give a shout out to MoGro and Together New Mexico. Please look into these two organizations!

How can people support you all in these efforts?

We are 100 percent volunteer and donation based. We appreciate monetary donations as well as non-perishable food and hygiene products. You can donate through the following website under the “food basket program”: services.madinaapps.com/donation/clients/ICNM

All are welcome! [ ]

ICNM Sisters Food Program at ICNM, 1100 Yale Blvd. SE, non-perishables and monetary donations welcome.