As the weather gets warmer and schools start to let out, Memorial Day marks the unofficial start of summer, making barbecues on the day a popular friends-and-family tradition. But at its core, the national holiday is a solemn one, filled with tributes to American servicemen and women who have passed away while on active duty.
It’s also when many Americans volunteer their time to give back to their local communities. One such occasion is an annual Memorial Day barbecue at the Jefferson Barracks Division of the VA Medical Center in south St. Louis County.
The Muslim Community Services of St. Louis (MCSL) is a local organization of medical professionals and others that coordinate community service projects across the area – including the annual barbecue at Jefferson Barracks.
For the past 12 years, they’ve put together the barbecue to serve patients and staff at the VA hospital to create an environment where “there is mutual learning and understanding on both sides,” said Dr. Bahar Bastani, a professor of medicine who specializes in nephrology and kidney transplantation at St. Louis University.
“[Memorial Day] is the memory of people who lost their lives, and we share our sympathies with those who could have lost their lives [and] were lucky to survive, but have some disabilities [as a] result of war. So it shows me how bad it is to have wars,” said Bastani, who is of Irani decent and one of the founders of MCSL.
“It’s a very good reminder [of just] how disastrous war is and how much educated, intellectual people should do their best educating communities to prevent wars, because we don’t want to be a service to people who benefit from war.”
Besides just serving food to the veterans and hospital staff, the MCSL volunteers, especially the youth, are encouraged to sit and talk with the veterans in efforts to dispel potential misconceptions on both sides.
They share stories and anecdotes about their lives, passions and interests.
Tom Moore is a nurse at the Jefferson Barracks Medical Center. He’s a veteran himself and served 26 years in the United States Air Force; 16 of those years were spent in the Middle East.
This year was his second time attending the annual barbecue, which he considers to be one of the best events at the center. He echoed the feeling of wanting to dispel the perceived animosity of Muslim communities and military members.
“Everybody has to heal, and I think this is a part of the process,” he said.
Fasting while serving food
For the past couple of years, many of the volunteers have been fasting from food and water at the event since Memorial Day has coincided within the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. To make it a little easier on them, the organizers have been teaming up with locally based barbecue service “Taste of Romeo’s” to help cook the meat.
Among the volunteers fasting and sharing life experiences at the barbecue was Fareedah Sema Sidqui. She’s the treasurer at Al-Mu'minun Islamic Center in north St. Louis and is retired from the Army Aviation Troop Command and the Army Corps of Engineers.
This was her first time at this particular event, but it came full circle considering she comes from a military family herself.
“I have nine brothers, five of whom served in the military and all five of my uncles … several of them buried here at Jefferson Barracks,” Sidqui said. Her son is also an Army veteran, now disabled.
“It’s like giving back; they’ve given their lives all in all, so this is just something small that I can do,” she added.
It’s worth noting that Muslims play an essential part in the military defending the United States’ interests and have fought in major U.S. wars including the Civil War, World War I, World War II, the Vietnam War, and more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan.