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Master of Food Rescue

Mustafa showing off a a truck filled to the brim with chips, picked up for our food rescue partners.

Mustafa (pronounced MOOS-tah-fah) Abdul-Maboud is our Building Operations and In Kind Manager at The Reva and David Logan Foundation. He is the lynchpin in our Food Rescue program. As seen in the picture above, he is responsible for picking up food donations of all kinds from our corporate partners and then overseeing distribution of our rescued products to our many pantry and non-profit partners. Here’s what he’s got to say:

Tell us about your background.

Mustafa: “I’m originally from Iraq. I lived there until after the war, and I left the country in 2006. During the war, my brothers worked as US Army interpreters. Eventually we left the country and went to Egypt. We lived there for a couple years, and during that process we qualified to come to this country as refugees. Back in 2008, on July 15th (I remember that day. Ask me what I had for lunch yesterday and I won’t remember, but I’ll remember that day vividly). We’ve lived here ever since in Chicago. We did not move around to different states, some people did. But so many times in our lives we had moved houses, moved countries, so that desire slowed down for me to move to different places or try another state.”

Which neighborhood did you first move into?

Mustafa: “Edgewater. It was one of those buildings that worked with non-profit organizations to accept refugees. We went into the building as the only Iraqi family, everyone else around us were Burmese. It was four floors. We ended up moving out and lived in the Rogers Park neighborhood because we wanted a bigger unit. At that time, my brother was taking care of us, and he wanted me to go back to school which I did. I went to Truman College and got my Associate’s degree over there. And then I went to Loyola after that. I went to school for Biology and Pre-Med.”

Did you want to become a doctor? What changed?

Mustafa: “I needed to start paying for myself. Working two jobs, one part time and one full time, and then going to school at the same time, was very energy draining. At that point, my brother had contributed more than enough and he wanted to have his own place and his own life, which I respect that. So I had to pay for things and find a job. Why didn’t I work in something closer to biology? Because it would have been like working in a lab somewhere and that was it. And that was not something that I was interested in. I was interested in doing research, but never interested in working in a lab. So I’ve been working in non-profit for a while, and it’s one of those things that fascinates me because it’s a whole sector dedicated to helping people.”

Why did you decide to work in non-profit?

Mustafa: “When I came to the United States, I was told that if you need stuff and your food stamps don’t cover it, you can go to a food pantry. But this is not something we were told by the agency that brought us. We learned it from the other Iraqis in the area. That’s when we went to Care for Real for the first time. It was an interesting moment when we saw how many people were standing in line. And the numbers were only going up because it was 2008. I remember hearing from the director at the time that they went from serving somewhere around 60-150 households per month to 100-150 per day. The numbers just skyrocketed. It was not a feel-good moment. For a country so powerful, so involved in aid in different parts of the world, it’s shameful that your backyard is going hungry.

“I was also fascinated by the fact that aid comes from this private entity, when in Iraq it was government subsidized, and it was garbage. The government would give you flour that has gnats, or very low quality stuff. There was no interest in nutrition whatsoever, so you ended up with subpar items that are not good for you. But here the people who work in these fields think about, ‘I need to give these people protein, vegetables, fruits, canned goods, fresh goods, with some extra.’

“And it was interesting to me that we can provide so many different options for people. I realized that it’s almost like all these grocery stores lumped up in one place. As a client you have the dignity of choice and at the same time it’s nothing bad, nothing spoiled. I love that idea. So providing these options to people is something I feel good about. Because it helps a lot of people and at the same time the products don’t go into a landfill. Somebody benefits from it. And people love it because it’s brand-name products.”

What drew you to work at the Logan Foundation?

Mustafa: “Realizing how diverse its work is. The Foundation does not have a single focus, unlike other non-profits and foundations. And they fund areas that traditionally lack funding, like journalism and the arts. When I worked in a food pantry, there was a program for pet food. And some people said, unsolicited, “Why would I donate money for pets? I only care about people.” But you do realize that if you lose your job, and you have a pet, what are you gonna do? Give your pet away? That’s your companion for god’s sake. It’s the same thing happening with arts, with journalism – “Why would I fund this when there’s hungry people outside?” But the fact is it all matters. Because it provides that social net that we so depend on. Some people tend to forget how important and effective it is.

“Also I was fascinated that the Foundation was acquiring buildings and purposing them for specific non-profit organizations. Buildings can tend to be one of your biggest expenses. And having this partnership with non-profits where they can occupy the space and they don’t have to think about spending that large amount of money for rent is fascinating because it can help them do so much work. When I worked on the receiving end of non-profit, I realized no matter what your space is, you end up outgrowing it at some point. I went from working in a space that used to be a storefront to a space that is three times the size of it. And we were joking about how we’re gonna need to start using walkie-talkies. So, seeing that the Foundation helps these non-profits with these buildings demonstrated that it helps them succeed and do better.”

What do you want to see change in Chicago?

Mustafa: “A lot. One of the things is the violence rate. I’ve heard it said so many times in the worst and most racist way possible: Black on Black. Brown on Brown. And, “Because I’m not part of that race, I’m not involved in it whatsoever.” When the fact is it’s impacting us as a whole. It’s so desensitized. In the evening news, it won’t be a main story. Instead, it’s “X amount of people got shot this weekend.” They lump it up and you become part of the statistic instead of an individual. You’re a human being, for god’s sake. Somebody tended to you since you were a baby. That’s what you’re worth at the end of the day? You’re a number? I truly dislike that.

“I also dislike that Chicago is so segregated. We have so many diverse populations, but it’s still extremely segregated. You can truly see it where I live in Austin. It almost feels gray in Austin, and when you hit Oak Park it’s full color. That’s terrible. This is something they systematically put in place to keep people away from each other.

“Food is expensive in Chicago. Even pet food is not cheap. There was a time when food pantries were mainly for seniors, unemployed people, refugees. But that has changed. We’re seeing younger crowds that will leave work and then stand in line at the food pantry. And that tells me that what they’re getting paid is not covering their expenses.

“It bothers me to see so many people on the street panhandling. When I first came to the United States, it was one or two people here or there. There’s a couple people on the North Side here whose faces I recognize, because they’ve been there for more than five years. So there’s a lot to be said about what needs to be changed in Chicago.”

What’s your favorite thing about Chicago?

Mustafa: “Interacting with people. It’s a very diverse place with a lot of people with rich histories. A long time ago when we would go pick up furniture donations, we would visit this one person around Wilmette. While we were taking the furniture from him, he told us about how he went to Harvard. He used to spend some time in the library. And he said this one guy would come in and they’d chat it up, and he’d try to invite him to go drinking and hang out. And he said, “You know who that guy was? A former US President! (Name withheld.)” It’s stuff like that, just give people enough time and they will tell you their life story, and there’s so much that you can learn from that.”

What’s the weirdest product you’ve seen in the pantry so far?

Mustafa: “Do you really want to know?” (It seemed like many of the things he wanted to say were not family friendly.) “Peepsi (Peeps flavored Pepsi) might be one of them. Also, cheddar flavored chocolate bars. I didn’t try it but I gave some to Richard. He said it was interesting.”

Anything else you’d like to share?

Mustafa: “If all the trees combined together and became one giant tree, and all the men combined together and became one giant man, and all the lakes combined together and became one giant lake, and all the axes combined together and became one giant ax, and the giant man came in with the giant ax and cut the giant tree, and the giant tree fell into the giant lake, it would be a big splash of water.”