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A Hero Among the Ashes

“Let my building burn. Justice needs to be served. Put those officers in jail.”

Hafsa Islam recounts the words of her father, Ruhel Islam, upon learning that their Minneapolis restaurant had gone up in flames. On Thursday, May 28th, amid the tumult following George Floyd’s death and the call for justice, the 12-year old restaurant, Gandhi Mahal, became a symbol of the uprising.

In his adopted hometown of Minneapolis, Ruhel Islam has been a vocal and proactive champion of food justice, social justice and climate justice. Not only did the restaurant have the first-of-its-kind basement aquaponics system that produced the spices, greens, herbs, vegetables and tilapia for the “basement to table” menu, a deep commitment to energy efficiency and zero waste, and emphasis on sustainability, local sourcing and urban farming, but also a dedicated community room to bring together people from different cultures over food. In addition to many environmental groups, Gandhi Mahal has forged connections with Black Lives Matter, Minnesota Interfaith Power and Light, Native American youth organizations, among other local activists.

“It’s a space where people can come together, get connected, have community, talk and be with each other,” the 18-year old says of the Bangladeshi-Indian restaurant her family started in the midst of the 2008 recession. That sentiment is echoed in the meaning of its name, which she translates as 'peaceful place of gathering,’ a combination of the non-violent teachings of Gandhi and the word for 'place of gathering' in Bangla, her father’s native tongue.

“Bringing you peace by pleasing your palette” is a phrase her father often uses to speak about the power of opening space for the community to share food and effect change. Chicken tikka masala, daal and naan are Hafsa’s all-time favorite dishes, the same ones her father prepared last week for protesters and medics.

Hafsa has worked in the restaurant since she was old enough to help set tables, learn to be a host, then assist with management and the business side as a young teen. Last Monday, she was driving to Gandhi Mahal as George Floyd was being arrested by the police officers who would end his life soon thereafter. That night, the restaurant remained open for its Covid-norm of takeaway and delivery amid peaceful, yet powerful demonstrations. The second day, she says, it became very hard to watch community members and people being hurt by tear gas and very aggressive force being used against peaceful protestors.

“As much as it was important to go on with business, we couldn’t go on and watch people being hurt,” Hafsa says, so the family opened its doors to medics, treating a few hundred people who came in with injuries. That continued on Wednesday and Thursday, as community members stood guard outside the restaurant to ensure it remained safe from the surrounding chaos. Her father departed after 1 am, leaving the space open for the medics still working inside.

Hafsa was woken up at 6 am on Friday morning by a former employee with the news that Gandi Mahal had burned in the now infamous fire set at the nearby Third Precinct of the Minneapolis Police Department. Her anger could not last upon hearing her father’s words to a friend, as he watched live news coverage of the scene:

“Let my building burn. Justice needs to be served. Put those officers in jail.”

“I had to bring myself back. This is not only George Floyd’s life being gone, but the many other lives taken away. That was a huge reminder of what we’re here fighting for,” says Hafsa who has grown up with activist values instilled in her. It was then that she wrote a viral Facebook post, which has accrued 40,000 plus likes and over 33,000 shares to date, affirming #JusticeForGeorgeFloyd and #BLM with solidarity, anger, gratitude and eloquence.

While the Islam family lost their primary income, they remain most concerned about the wellbeing of the 20 employees and families who depended upon the restaurant financially, and have launched a Gandhi Mahal Revival Fundraiser on GoFundMe to support them, secure an apartment for their chef (who also lost his apartment in the fire), and find a commercial kitchen to continue with takeout orders.

"We will rebuild,” promises Hafsa. “It will be a long journey, of course, but we'll get there and we'll come back stronger than ever. We can bring back a building, but we can’t bring back George Floyd and return him to his family.”

Hafsa says they all want to see justice and will continue to fight for it.

The eldest of four, Hafsa plans to begin studying mechanical engineering at Mankato State University in the fall. Even then, the family will continue to eat dinner together at home, where her mother does the cooking…which she secretly and only slightly prefers to her father’s award-winning restaurant-style meals.

She believes that they will eventually be back in the restaurant. They’ll be cooking naan in a new clay oven that they will be able to purchase for a community who will gather in the dedicated room where a sign reading ‘How to Build Community’ miraculously survived the fire.

"That is very symbolic; our community will never die."

Written for and originally published on Chef Tyler Florence's Full piece here.


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