Islamic Center in Koreatown opens its doors for a holiday giveaway

Nishat Brinta, left, distributes Christmas gifts at a weekly food bank set up by the Islamic Center of Southern California in Los Angeles.

Nishat Brinta, left, distributes Christmas gifts at a weekly food bank set up by the Islamic Center of Southern California in Los Angeles.

(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

After the November terrorist attacks in Paris, Andrew Boyle felt a need to expand his understanding.

The 45-year-old actor, who describes himself as “the generic white guy in commercials,” sent an email to the Islamic Center of Southern California.

Its message: “I would like to know more.”

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The query led him on an unexpected path of discovery that found him Saturday morning standing next to a stack of cabbages in the dining hall of the mosque on Vermont Avenue between 4th and 5th streets.

Boyle’s assignment was to pick up cabbages, tidy them up a bit, bag them and hand them across a table. He did it for the better part of an hour.

Boyle was the latest recruit on the volunteer squad that runs the mosque’s food bank.

The mosque’s outreach to the needy of Koreatown is in its 10th year. This Saturday was different. Not in answer to the recent Islamic terrorists attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, but in spite of them, the nonsectarian event had a quaintly sectarian addition: Christmas presents.

There were glittered Hula-Hoops and dolls for the kids, but most of the presents were practical items an adult might appreciate. The hottest item--folding carts to carry food in—went quickly.

Most of the clients were elderly. And though there were a few Muslims among them, they decidedly reflected the polyglot and poly-faith character of the neighborhood. Besides Korean, there were Chinese, Vietnamese, Filipino, Armenian, Latino and African American guests.

“They mean a great deal to us,” said food bank organizer Bali James, who hails from a mixed-faith English family and has worshiped at the mosque since immigrating in the 1990s.


“Although we do not celebrate Christmas, we want to acknowledge [others] at this time of year,” she said.

James, who represents Hollywood hairstylists and markets a line of skin care products online, has been planning the giveaway for months. She said she asked her friends for donations and went shopping “as if I was shopping for a friend.”

She wasn’t going to be deterred by the potential for anti-Islamic sentiment.

Other than Boyle’s presence, there was no hint Saturday that terrorism was on anyone’s mind.

“I don’t think these patrons care,” James said. “They come for food. Some of them are truly hungry. Some of them just need a little extra.”

And they came for camaraderie. By 9 a.m. more than 100 were waiting, taking their places in the order of arrival in rows of chairs under a temporary shelter in the parking lot.

“It’s like therapy for us,” said Amor, one of three Filipino women who chatted animatedly while waiting for their turn.”When you stay home you just don’t do anything and get bored.”


The women, who gave only their first names, all said they lived alone and had no cars.

“You see your friends,” Alicia said.

“That’s why we come here,” Tessie said.

Their biggest concern appeared to be holding their spot in line.

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Without line security, things get a little out of hand, said Latif Diop, a muscular volunteer whose job was to hand out plastic number cards.

Clutching their numbers, the patrons waited and socialized until called, one-by-one to pick up their present then go into the hall to fill their carts with eggs, spaghetti, raisins, pears and cabbage.

Boyle, who was manning the last station, said this was his second time, and not his last.

Expanded understanding, he’s learned, “is not a one-time thing--you’re done.”


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