Latino Voices

‘It Could Be Any One of Us’: Muslim Organization Helps Those Facing Homelessness in Chicago

‘It Could Be Any One of Us’: Muslim Organization Helps Those Facing Homelessness in Chicago

Winter in Chicago can be brutal, and it can be even worse for those experiencing homelessness. A Latino Muslim organization is coming together to help those in need on the city’s Southwest Side.

It’s a frigid night in Chicago. A group of volunteers works together to pack up warm chicken noodle soup. Members like Christopher Nevarez Azdar have been participants in an initiative called Neighborly Needs.

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“We’re going to be out here for, like, two hours, and we’re going to be freezing, but we can get to go back into our car and feel the warmth,” Nevarez Azdar said. “But it’s the realization that these folks don’t have the opportunity to go to a warm car or get under warm blankets.”

The initiative is operated by the Ojala Foundation.

“The word ojala means hope,” Raul Gonzalez said to the group of volunteers. “We are not just trying to give food and resources. The main thing we are trying to give is hope.”

Gonzalez is one of the founders. It’s a mission he embarked on nearly six years ago.

“Neighborly Needs came about in my kitchen, and we started to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches,” Gonzalez said. “We would go out and hand out and ran out of food because the need is so big, … and we said we would be back next week.”

Before the team heads out to neighborhoods like Pilsen and Little Village, members like Christopher Abdulker Kareem Pavlicek begin with a prayer circle.

“We ask Allah to reward you for that, and we hope you take something home with you every time you come out,” Kareem Pavlicek said.

The first stop is an encampment under a bridge. That’s where we meet 61-year-old Yolanda Velasquez.

“I was doing so well before my father passed away, working at Potbelly’s. I lost my job, I went through a depression,” Velasquez expressed. “I lost my apartment, and I’m sleeping in a tent. I’m homeless.”

For the last five months, the Chicago native said, she’s been living on the streets. Getting help has been challenging.

“They are telling me that I’m not qualified anymore because they are giving all the benefits to the Venezuelans,” Velasquez said. “I understand they need help, too, but they are forgetting about the people who pay taxes in Chicago and are homeless just like they are.”

With temperatures dropping, Velasquez said she is desperate to find a warm space.

“I look forwarded to every Friday to be here at least to get whatever I can,” Velasquez said as tears ran down her cheek. “Anything helps me right now.”

It’s a calling close to one of the members of the foundation.

“It’s very personal,” Kareem Pavlicek said. “Some of the closest people to me, they found themselves in this situation and they didn’t quite make it.”

The team heads to the second stop where people are sleeping near a school.

Gonzalez doesn’t shy away from telling his story about how he found his devotion to Islam. It’s a journey he said has led him to give back.

“I have a very hard past, and I needed peace, and I was always into stuff, always in trouble,” Gonzalez said. “I want to penitentiary. I did a lot of time in prison and was always angry, always looking for family. That’s my family now, Ojala Foundation.”

Every Friday, you’ll find Gonzalez and a group of volunteers not only passing out a warm meal but also spreading the faith of Islam.

“These people are no different, it could be any one of us,” Kareem Pavlicek said. “We’re all just one really bad day away from finding ourselves in a desperate situation.”

The Neighborly Needs initiative has been running for five years on donations. To learn more about the organization and how to help, visit

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