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.

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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