The San Antonio Mosque at the forefront of sustainable development

At a mosque on the north side of San Antonio, as the sunset prayer for Ramadan is over and dozens of people begin to leave to finally eat a full meal, Uzair Iqbal jumps in front of the crowd and grabs a microphone.

He promises his faithful companions that if they stay two minutes, it will be worth it.

Some people stop. Others move slowly towards the door but listen. Most members of Muslim Children Education and Civic Center and Almadinah Masjid know him as Uzair the recycling guy or Uzair the ad guy or his favorite – Uzair the guy “I recycle now because you got it for me said”.

“I want you to be proud to make this your home and keep it clean. Let’s be proud and bring your own water bottles from home or recycle disposable ones from here. Let’s be proud that we don’t waste food and clean up around us,” he said. “Let’s make this Ramadan the best ever and make other mosques jealous of us. I want them to use us as an example of a model community.

Men visit the Muslim Children’s Civic and Education Center and Almadinah Masjid in San Antonio for the Maghreb sunset prayer on Friday evening.

Sam Owens, Staff Photographer/San Antonio Express-News

Iqbal has been giving speeches since the start of Ramadan in early April, and he will continue to do so every night until the end of the month of fasting. He is a member of MCECC and a volunteer on its Go Green committee, which this year began pursuing sustainability.

Such green initiatives are increasingly common in Muslim communities. Mosques with green committees, community gardens and sustainable practices have been popping up across the country, such as in Houston and Chicago. In San Antonio, the MCECC is leading the charge. This month is all about composting, recycling and addressing the Ramadan crowd every night, reminding them to think green. Next month they will start gardening.

“We’re trying to make a culture change this year,” Iqbal said. “It will be a big improvement.”

Kassim Ahmed Mudassar, right, and another volunteer cut a watermelon on Thursday to prepare for the Ramadan service at the Muslim Children Education and Civic Center and Almadinah Masjid in San Antonio.  All watermelon rinds are put in the MCECC compost bin.

Kassim Ahmed Mudassar, right, and another volunteer cut a watermelon on Thursday to prepare for the Ramadan service at the Muslim Children Education and Civic Center and Almadinah Masjid in San Antonio. All watermelon rinds are put in the MCECC compost bin.

Sam Owens, Staff Photographer/San Antonio Express-News

A green mosque

Earlier this year, Sarah Samreen, who chairs the MCECC board, secured reusable water bottles for the mosque for Ramadan. In previous years, the mosque distributed disposable plastic bottles during dinner every night, but with the sustainability initiative, the green committee and Samreen wanted to do something different.

During Ramadan – a Muslim observance involving fasting, prayer and community – the MCECC holds iftar, when the sun goes down and Muslims can break their fast for the day. From sunrise to sunset, those observing Ramadan cannot eat or drink. At MCECC, community members and restaurants donate food and drinks to the mosque for iftar. Thursday night was chickpea sauce, chicken and rice with naan.

In the dining room, there are hundreds of disposable plastic water bottles, which were ordered before Samreen received the reusable bottles. She said the fact that there are so many disposable bottles left means people are using the reusable ones instead.

Next year, in addition to having only reusable bottles, the mosque plans to have compostable dishes. It will be more expensive, says Samreen, but it is well worth the mission.

Earlier in the day, before mosque members started arriving for iftar, volunteers chopped watermelon for dinner. Traditionally, MCECC members eat watermelon and dates first, say the first prayer of the night, and then eat the largest meal.

A volunteer cuts watermelon as people break the fast and celebrate Ramadan together at the Muslim Children Education and Civic Center in San Antonio on Thursday.

A volunteer cuts watermelon as people break the fast and celebrate Ramadan together at the San Antonio Muslim Children’s Civic and Education Center on Thursday.

Sam Owens, Staff Photographer/San Antonio Express-News

Watermelon is cheap, full of water and an easy-to-distribute fruit to many people, said Tanweer Akhtar, who chairs the Go Green committee. It is also easily compostable.

A few weeks ago, the committee assembled a 6‘ x 6’ wooden compost bin at the edge of the property. The children of the mosque, including that of Akhtar, built it, which he says is a great way for them to learn about green practices. After the watermelon is cut, the volunteers carry the peels to the trash. Coffee grounds, paper and dried leaves from the grounds also go in there.

Another project the children are working on is a community garden next to the mosque, which the committee hopes to complete and plant by May.

“We want our children to enjoy the environment now,” said Aafreen Akhtar, who is also active on the Go Green committee. “By having them build these gardens and the compost bin, they will grow with it.”

Anything left over from dinner that night is donated to refugees at the Refugee Services Center through a program coordinated by Iqbal’s father, Munawar. Iqbal said it’s a way to do something good and avoid wasting food – another of the Go Green committee’s agenda items.

“Everyone is fasting every day, so you don’t want to see that food wasted now,” Iqbal said. “It defeats the purpose. Our official duty is to be stewards of the planet.

Men line up for an iftar meal Thursday during a Ramadan service at the Muslim Children's Civic and Education Center and Almadinah Masjid in San Antonio.

Men line up for an iftar meal Thursday during a Ramadan service at the Muslim Children’s Civic and Education Center and Almadinah Masjid in San Antonio.

Sam Owens, Staff Photographer/San Antonio Express-News

“A little for you can mean a lot”

Throughout the mosque there are reminders to go green.

Just above the water cooler, on which a water bottle faucet was recently installed, a sign says to bring a reusable water bottle, recycle plastic bottles in the blue bins, don’t take only enough food and practice wudu – an Islamic cleansing process before worshiping at home to save time and water.

“Islam is a way of life. It affects every little thing we do,” Samreen said. “It is actually written in the Koran that we must conserve our resources, especially water. Rain comes from the sky, and even if you wash in a river, you must not waste this water.

Another sign hanging in the women’s and men’s areas depicts a plate with just a piece of food on it. The design of the plate depicts hundreds of hungry people searching for a single piece. He says, “A little for you can mean a lot.”

It means a lot to Aafren Akhtar. Children don’t always understand that what they eat and what they waste has such a big impact on the Earth. The question is what can we do with this food.

“That’s what I told my kids,” she said, pointing to the picture. “We can’t waste it, because look at this.”

The entire Go Green committee agrees on this, and they agree that this is just the beginning of sustainability at MCECC.

A volunteer Friday cleans cutting boards that are reused every night to prepare the iftar meal during Ramadan at the Muslim Children's Civic and Education Center and Almadinah Masjid in San Antonio.

A volunteer Friday cleans cutting boards that are reused every night to prepare the iftar meal during Ramadan at the Muslim Children’s Civic and Education Center and Almadinah Masjid in San Antonio.

Sam Owens, Staff Photographer/San Antonio Express-News

Next, the team plans to install solar panels on the mosque and a monitoring system to assess the amount of water used by the mosque and check for leaks. The mosque has already installed energy-efficient floodlights and is considering other ways to save energy.

By next Ramadan, the committee hopes to have more sustainable practices in place across the mosque, incorporating changes that impact the whole community and personal decisions.

“It’s funny because all my friends call me the recycling guy and say, ‘I’m not going to recycle,'” Iqbal said.

Last week, however, a friend of his ran through the entire mosque for recycling and attributed this to Iqbal’s weekly announcements.

“If you can change your buddies,” he said, “you’re on the right track.”

Elena Bruess writes for the Express-News through Report for America, a national service program that places reporters in local newsrooms. ReportforAmerica.org. [email protected]

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