October 22, 2018
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‘It’s been a blessing’: Community rallies around Maine Muslim family after their halal business was targeted

When Kathryn Piper and Hussam “Sam” Al-Rawi, a Troy couple who own a new halal meat business, woke up one morning in April to see that someone apparently had fired a shotgun at their brand new sign, they were frightened.

The sign was located just feet from the home they share with children Hammoudi, almost 3, and Thurayya, 15 months. It was peppered with eight holes. Police believe that the damage likely was caused by a shotgun loaded with buckshot, and the couple feared that it was not a coincidence that they had been targeted. They are Muslims who recently relocated to Maine from the Middle East, and she wears a hijab when she’s out and about. It’s hard enough to move to a new place and start a new business, but the shooting made things feel harder.

“This person attempted to scare us and intimidate us as a family,” Piper, 35, said.

But what happened next helped make them feel more hopeful about the future they can have in Maine. They’ve received many cards and letters from people who want them to know that they are sorry about the incident and who want the family to feel safe and welcome here. Some sent small gifts, like tins of tea and blocks for their children. Farmers and neighbors have stopped by their home to greet them personally and find out more about Five Pillars Butchery, the business they started a year ago. Would-be customers have indicated their interest in purchasing the lamb, goat, chicken, turkey and beef they sell. And so the torrent of kindness and good wishes has helped to wash away the fear.

“I know this is not Maine,” Al-Rawi, 43, said of the sign shooting. “I move all the day and I see people, and I love people around here. They are friendly. They are caring. They are polite.”

His wife agreed.

“People have reached out to welcome us. People have asked us about the product [the meat]. It’s been a blessing,” Piper said. “After what happened, it’s the community that grounded us. It’s the people that have reached out to us that made us feel safe. They’ve filled our hearts.”

From palm trees to pine trees

On the first hot day of the year, Piper and Al-Rawi welcomed guests warmly to the old farmhouse they are renting. They set out cool water, dried dates and a bowl of sweet, creamy tahini sauce to dip them as their small daughter, Thurayya, peeked out with large dark eyes from the safety of her mother’s lap. Outside, the fields around the farmhouse looked as if they were greening up by the minute in the bright sunshine. It’s a little hard to believe that just a couple of years ago, they were living amid the heat, palm trees and high rises of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Al-Rawi, originally from Iraq, moved to Saudi Arabia with his family in 1994. After graduating from high school, he studied architectural engineering in Jordan and then returned to Saudi Arabia to work. There, he engineered health care facilities and high rise hotels, but in some ways still felt like a foreigner and socialized with other expatriates through a group called InterNations. That’s where he met Piper, who grew up in a New England Methodist family in New Hampshire but had converted to Islam when she was 27. She realized Christianity wasn’t for her when she was in 8th grade, the year that she spent studying the Bible in preparation for her confirmation.

“The thing that got me was the way that women were portrayed in the Bible,” she said, giving the example of how Eve is theoretically the originator of all sin. “If that’s how God sees religion, that’s not my God.”

When she learned more about Islam, it clicked with her, in part because the teachings of the Quran hold mothers in high esteem. She converted and soon afterwards decided she wanted a change of scenery. Piper thought it would be great to study Arabic and learn more about Islam while working in the Middle East. She took a job teaching English in Riyadh, and then met Al-Rawi at a bowling alley there. They married and had their son, but a couple of years ago decided to try their luck in the United States. They came to Maine because Piper’s father was from here originally and she had good memories of summers in the Caratunk area, and so they settled in the farmhouse in Troy.

One thing they noticed right away when they moved to Maine was the scarcity of halal meats. Halal, which translates from Arabic to English as “permissible,” and in terms of food refers to what is the dietary standard in accordance with the Quran. For meat to be halal, it has to meet certain conditions throughout the life of the animal.

“Every day in an animal’s life should be happy until the very last day,” the Five Pillars Butchery website explains. “The animal should be treated humanely, fed properly, allowed to live outside and have freedom of movement … both its life and death must be respected.”

Halal slaughter begins with giving a drink of water to the animal while gently speaking to and handling it. It must be killed quickly while facing toward Mecca, and a prayer or dedication is spoken during the process. The animal must be killed with a blade sharpened out of its sight and it must not see any other animals being killed. This is meant to minimize fear and pain, and in Saudi Arabia, everything they might want to eat was halal.

“The options are endless,” Piper said, adding that this is not the case in Maine. “Here we have fewer options and it’s not fresh.”

Long road to success

Piper and Al-Rawi decided they wanted to change that paradigm, and so the idea for Five Pillars Butchery was born. They’re not farmers, though they raised a couple of goats this winter, and they’re not butchers. But they are working with Maine farms and a Maine slaughterhouse to produce packages of fresh halal beef, lamb, goat, chicken and turkey that they sell to customers. For the last few months, they have bought animals from Maine farms and taken them to a USDA-certified slaughterhouse in Gardiner where they are slaughtered in accordance with halal strictures. Al-Rawi and Piper package the meat with their labels and deliver it around the state, including stops at the Belfast Co-op and in Orono, among other locations.

There are challenges, they said. There are some larger, regional companies that distribute more mass-produced halal meat around New England, and it is hard to compete with their lower prices (although they believe their Five Pillars Butchery meat, like other locally, humanely raised meat animals tastes better and is fresher). They need to find more farmers who want to raise larger numbers of lambs and goats to sell to them. And they are contending with some painful financial realities. Among them, Maine consumers often cannot afford to pay a higher premium for meat, even if it is better quality than the commodity meat that has previously been available.

“In our first year of business, we had this utopian idea. The farmers would profit, the facility would profit and we would profit, but that’s not what happened,” Piper said.

Still, they believe in their vision. They don’t think anyone, regardless of religion, should be left out of Maine’s agricultural renaissance. They are also trying to diversify a bit by making value-added product with animal by-products such as lamb tallow. Piper is working on a line of body creams made with tallow and scented with essential oils, for instance.

“We see a lot of potential,” she said. “We want to make lamb more common on the dinner table. One of our goals is to make this product more affordable to people, non-Muslims and Muslims alike.”

And the community support they’ve received after the sign shooting makes them want to try their hardest to realize those goals.

“I think our road is long. We are not expecting this will happen in two or even three years,” Al-Rawi said. “But hopefully we will be in a better place than today.”

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