Driving on the Right Side: From Prison to D.C. Central Kitchen

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Gabrielle Emanuel


To view a multimedia slide show and interview with Muhammad, click here.

We met Muhammad Abdul-Karim on a rainy October morning in the kitchen's parking lot. A driver at DC Central Kitchen, a nonprofit organization that provides meals to the homeless and offers culinary job training to at-risk individuals, Muhammad was preparing his truck for a day of picking up food and making deliveries to local restaurants. Before climbing onto the truck's leather three-seater, he told us we were in luck—he loves to talk. We were welcome company on the two-hour drive into the countryside outside Washington.

"I don't look at this as a job," Muhammad said, glancing at his GPS. "I look at this as giving back."

Only a month into his job as a driver, Muhammad seemed perfectly at ease navigating to Fauquier's Finest, a slaughterhouse in Bealton, Virginia. He wore a black kufi, black pants, worn New Balance sneakers, and a gray DC Central Kitchen t-shirt with "Feeding the Soul of the City" written on the back. Muhammad's leanness, which he attributes to his vegetarian diet, made him seem at least 10 years younger than his age of 53. His black beard was only just starting to show signs of graying and reddening.

When Muhammad is not putting in 10+ hour days delivering local meat and produce, he drives to shelters and halfway houses where he delivers food directly to the homeless and at-risk individuals in DC. "I don't look at this as a job," Muhammad said, glancing at his GPS. "I look at this as giving back. I've got to get out here and drive because these people have to eat. If I were back in that lifestyle, I might be one of those people."

Without any hint of indignity in his voice, Muhammad told us that he was an ex-con who had been released from prison only 13 months earlier.

The Wrong Side of the Road

On Highway 66, we were surrounded by open fields and trees whose leaves were just beginning to change into the warm reds, oranges, and yellows of autumn. Savoring the shift in seasons, Muhammad said that he saw nature in an entirely new way after getting out of prison.

A D.C. native, Muhammad started using heroin at the age of 16, mainly as a way to seek acceptance from the older criminals he knew in Southeast D.C. After his drug habit spiraled into stealing automobiles and selling drugs, he landed in prison on four separate occasions. His most recent incarceration lasted five years.

Cue the DC Central Kitchen. A friend of Muhammad's, a former ex-con who cooks at the Kitchen, informed him about a job opening as a delivery truck driver.

"I owe the DC Central Kitchen a lot," Muhammad said. "It's a base for me. It's a financial base and way of life. They gave an ex-con a chance. A chance to prove himself. A new way of life."

Crossing Over

At the slaughterhouse, Muhammad divided packaged pork, veal, and beef into separate, color-coded containers based on the delivery locations. Despite his preference for vegetables, Muhammad handled the raw meat without complaint.

While Muhammad loaded the containers onto his refrigerated truck, we noticed his arms were decorated with prison tattoos. On one arm he has a faded green map of Africa, while on the other he has the star and crescent of Islam.

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Michael Solis

Muhammad's interest in Islam began simply by observing the practices and behaviors of his fellow inmates who had embraced the religion. Watching their lives change, he asked them questions until he decided he too wanted to become a devotee. He regards this as the decision that put him on the right path.

Tattoos are prohibited by Islam because they constitute an alteration to the creation of Allah. Muhammad, who had acquired his tattoos before converting, shrugged off the observation and admitted that he was not perfect.

Muhammad also has three stars tattooed on his body to commemorate three deceased nephews who lost their lives to the streets of D.C., as well as a banner on his back that lists the names of eight family members who died while he was in prison.

The deceased are not the only relatives Muhammad laments. Before his previous prison sentence, his 34-year-old daughter told him that she would never speak to him again if he went back to prison. She kept her word; the two have not spoken for over five years.

"I let her down too many times," Muhammad said as we pulled into a McDonald's parking lot at a trucker's pit stop. "She's just as stubborn as I am. God willing, she'll come around."

Grounded

Back on the road, Muhammad explained how he has expanded his job description as a driver. Every chance he gets, Muhammad shares his story and the opportunities that exist at the Kitchen with the homeless, delivering what he hopes will be a transformative message to those who are confronting the same challenges he once faced.

"This job keeps me grounded," Muhammad said, commenting on the reciprocal benefits of his work on the streets. "We even feed people at the transitional home I was in. Every day I help people who are in the same spot I used to be in."

It also helps Muhammad to know how many people are depending on him to stay clean and employed: his mother, his brother, his fiancée, as well as a new generation of nieces and nephews who view the reformed Muhammad as their "cool uncle." With tears streaming down his face, Muhammad said that he was trying to do his best to be a role model for them so that they would never follow the same path as him or his deceased nephews.

Pulling into the Kitchen's parking lot at 5:30pm—an early return for Muhammad—he welcomed us into the Kitchen to continue our conversation.

"My fiancée doesn't get home 'til eight," he said with a smile. "I have time."

Muhammad shares his story with the hope of inspiring those who find themselves on the "wrong side." His fiancée is one such person—a two-time cancer survivor and counselor who overcame her drug dependency after following Muhammad's words of advice.

"I give them a point of encouragement," Muhammad said. "It gives me great pleasure. That keeps me rooted. It tells me hey, it's more to come. And I'm focused and headed towards that more to come."

We left Muhammad with a friendly handshake that felt more relaxed than it had earlier. Before turning the corner onto E Street, we looked back and saw Muhammad hop into his driver's seat to prepare the truck for a new set of deliveries the following day.


Video: Driving on the Right Side



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Presented by

Gabrielle Emanuel and Michael Solis

Gabrielle Emanuel is a Lombard Fellow working on water access and water purification in Bandiagara, Mali. Michael Solis is a human rights worker, journalist, and fiction writer from New Jersey. More

Gabrielle Emanuel first became interested in the intersection between food and social justice as a student at Dartmouth College, where she organized weekly meals for the homeless community and taught cooking lessons at the local family shelter. She is now a Lombard Fellow working on water access and water purification in Bandiagara, Mali. Next year, as a Rhodes Scholar, she will continue her studies at Oxford. She has published articles and photography nationally, including in the Annals of Internal Medicine and The Chicago Tribune.

Michael Solis is a human rights worker, journalist, and fiction writer from New Jersey. A graduate of Princeton University and the Irish Centre for Human Rights at NUI Galway, he is currently working for OYE Adelante Jovenes (The Organization for Youth Empowerment) in El Progreso, Honduras. There he is helping to develop the leadership and capacity of at-risk Honduran youth while sharing his love for the creative arts.


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