The Story of Zakat Foundation of America

Khalil Demir 
Executive Director & Founder 

FIRST BLOSSOM

It is 1991. I am 30, standing in a Kurdish refugee camp amid a thousand spring blossoms in the Zagros Mountains, overlooking Lake Urmia. I am saying farewell to the people I’ve been serving, with the Swiss Red Cross and Caritas Europa, a European confederation of Catholic relief charities. A little girl intercepts my salaams and embraces. 

She has run to the one who funneled her a steady stash of personal confection these past three months, someone to coax a laugh from, a human clasp of security, a moment’s play — against the grimness of another parentless day.  

She is a Tent child, a dweller of the Orphan Pavilion established by the Red Crescent for the camp children now cared for communally. 

Her name is Gulsin, a black-haired girl with big dark eyes. She’s come running with a smile for all the world — like the first day I saw her, and every day after. I kneel. She’s in my arms. 

Gulşin, my love. You know, I’m going to go.”
“Oh, but you’re going to come back, right? Tomorrow?”
My commission is over. I tell her no. “This time, I don’t know when I’ll be back.” 

An endless smile ends at last. A tiny face goes taut. Searching mine, her eyes try to understand. A cry wells within. Then trembling lips blurt out a thing too searing to be said: “If you go, who will take care of me?” Those dark, sad eyes. That desolate look. They pierce my heart through. I have to look away. That’s when it struck me. All the Gulşins of the world, what if they ask, Who will care for us? 

The name Gulsin means Red Rose.

My soul feels sadness for the lone little girl, like a flower, precious in my hands. She quietly questions me. Why do you look left and right? She says to me. Who will care for them? And then, as if in a whisper, Why shouldn’t it be you? 

God bless Gulsin. Oh, for the little blossoms! — my inspiration to establish what 10 years later became Zakat Foundation of America. 

A LIVING FORCE

Zakat Foundation of America, in essence, is the spiritual energy created by the meeting of two prayers: 

  1. It the earnest plea of a sincere giver who asks God to let the resources He has given one do good in the world 
  2. The urgent entreaty of someone in need asking God for help. 

That spiritual energy is called servanthood.  

Servanthood is the founding ethic of the Zakat Foundation. Servanthood is the condition that the people who direct, staff, and support the Zakat Foundation strive for. We seek to serve our One Creator by serving all of His creation. 

This is the state we at Zakat Foundation aspire to live in. We strive to be builders for the benevolent — those who dream of a better world for the near and the far neighbor to live together in as one. 

Serving our givers. Serving our receivers. Serving our Zakat Foundation workers and volunteers — all in the service of our One Lord, and ever at His pleasure. 

This is the ethos of the Zakat Foundation of America. 

WHAT WE DO … AND NEVER DO 

We seek not merely to aid — but to enrich — the poor. 

We feed the hungry, yes, both at home and across the world. But we teach them techniques and equip them also for food-resilient farming and connect them to the market and profit. 

We act to slake the thirst of the parched, building, and installing water wells and pumps in a dozen countries. Then we plan with the thirsty and work alongside them to engineer self-sustaining water sources, pure and in abundance, for their communities. 

We shelter the refugee and the displaced, then deliver the family intact to resettlement, retraining, new-language literacy, education, and earning through trade and jobs. 

We stand by the widow and the single mother and do not desert her, but support her through self-reliance with skills-acquisition courses that ready her for employment, or more desirably to empower entrepreneurship. 

We foster the orphan in safety to an educated maturity and independence. 

We rebuild houses that reclaim the family lives of the bombed-out homeless, stripped of everything, including their pride and will to thrive. We restore livelihoods to the displaced destitute foraging food and restart ruined lives in remote villages, with a gift of mating dairy pairs and animal husbandry training. 

We underwrite anti-gun violence initiatives in city neighborhoods and send those local school children with packs full of supplies back into classrooms. 

We distribute holiday foods to struggling families and toys to their children. 

We hand-deliver medical aid, nursing services, hygiene and winter kits, bedding and heaters, cooking and household utensils, emergency food and water, and prepaid debit cards to people hit by contagion and disaster not only abroad, but at home in America’s growing food and health care deserts. 

We uphold those who seek to build just societies and empowered local communities — advocating for policies that correct societal racism, sectarianism, and discrimination; fostering equal rights and fairness; nurturing human rights and social egalitarianism, and campaigning for the rights of the earth and its creatures, and especially a halt to the causes of climate change. 

What we never do is ask those we serve about their race, ethnicity, or religious beliefs as a test of aiding them. 

We judge not their behaviors nor attribute their affliction to the judgment of God. 

We attach no strings, make no demands, permit no quid pro quo in exchange for the gifts our donors give freely and our workers offer humbly to our desperate and vulnerable neighbors at home and across the world. 

AN EYE TO THE FUTURE 

Z akat Foundation of America’s directors and staff believe the eradication of poverty and inequality on earth is not only possible; it is a mandate of Islam upon us and, therefore, a necessarily achievable goal in our lifetimes. 

For this reason, we enthusiastically seek new knowledge, partnerships, ways, and ideas to develop our humanitarian vision, improve our charitable outreach, refine our philanthropic strategies and approach, and, most importantly, grow and expand our inclusive Zakat Foundation family.  

Zakat Foundation of America is, above all, a kindred of servanthood, and we invite you to join.