Muslim restaurant offers free Christmas meal

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SHAFAQNA – The London restaurant’s offer started with a simple note, handwritten on a sheet of white paper.

“No one eats alone on a Christmas Day!” it read, with the exclamation point modified so that it included a heart. “We are here to sit with you. … Any homeless or elderly are welcomed.”

The sheet was posted last month on the windows of the Shish Restaurant, a Muslim-owned eatery in southeast London. The restaurant also posted a picture of the sign on its social media pages in mid-November, encouraging people to share it with anyone who might be alone on Christmas.

Any other year, the restaurant’s offer of a free Christmas meal might have been quietly acknowledged as one in keeping with the holiday spirit of generosity.

This year, however, it seems to have taken on extra meaning: The restaurant is owned and managed by Muslims, and its kind offer comes at a time when a record number of Islamophobic incidents have been registered in Britain in the wake of the bitter “Brexit” referendum in June.

Shish’s handwritten note immediately struck a nerve. In the past three weeks, images of the sign have been liked and shared thousands of times on Facebook. Hundreds of people have commented, praising the restaurant for its hospitable gesture in the face of the inhospitable environment for Muslims.

“Shish, you have no idea how much I love this,” wrote a Facebook user named Stephen F. Lynch. “I have been banging on forever that we need to stop blaming everyone else and step up and help those around us and not leave it to others. This is just amazing and I’m going to share your page to all I know. You guys are awesome for doing this and I hope those that can follow your lead. I hope this day of kindness rewards you 10 fold and i’m sure it will … just don’t be stingy with the pudding;) great job. xx”

The restaurant replied to him, saying the gesture was motivated by a sense of community, not by a desire “to be known around.”

“And yes we are not living in a wonderful world at the moment, and (it’s) time for us to come together to stand up for each other,” Shish’s reply read. “We will always be there and look after each other. Christmas is an amazing day as everyone should have the chance of having a wonderful day.”

The restaurant thanked Lynch for his feedback – then added, with a grinning emoji: “Don’t worry about the rice pudding, we wouldn’t be (stingy).”

According to the restaurant’s website, Shish has been in London since 1993 and specializes in Turkish meat dishes.

“We come from the tradition of where many cultures are embraced from different cuisines under the one roof of Ottomans,” its website says.

Restaurant manager Irsan Can Genc told CNN that the idea for the free Christmas meal came after a local elderly woman walked into the restaurant in early November asking whether anyone could help her close a window.

The staff obliged, and the woman mentioned afterward while thanking them that she would be alone for Christmas.

For Shish owner Serdar Kigili, the woman reminded him of his mother in Turkey, whom he had not seen in five years, according to the news network.

The staff began planning what they could do for people in similar situations.

“It’s not about religion, language or culture,” Genc told CNN. “It’s about community.”

The community has responded in kind. Genc told the BBC that 40 to 50 people have volunteered to help cook and clean, as well as to drive people to and from the restaurant on Christmas. At least two people designed and donated printed posters about the free meal, which now hang side by side on the restaurant’s windows.

Genc said he hopes other restaurants and people in the community will be inspired to “look after each other.”

“In the culture we come from, we really love to help people no matter what race or religion they are,” Genc told the Associated Press.

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