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How A Hardware Store Helped Build The Muslim Community Of Belize

In Belize, San Pedro's Muslim community revolves around the Harmouches, a Lebanese family who immigrated in the 1980s and whose hardware business is at the heart of the town.

​Photo taken in front of the Muslim Community Primary School in Belize

Photo of the Muslim Community Primary School in Belize

Joseph Hammond*

SAN PEDRO, Belize — On tropical Ambergris Caye in Belize, Islam is a family affair. The island's largest town, San Pedro, has a population of just over 13,000, of whom some 200 are Muslims. This small yet vibrant Muslim community was launched by a single adventurous Lebanese family — the Harmouches.

A Friday congregational prayer known as “jumah” finds roughly 60 of the island’s inhabitants in attendance. Despite temperatures reaching more than 90 F, a series of fans, air conditioners and thick walls help keep the interior of the mosque cool. Just beyond the mosque’s fence is the island’s modest airstrip, which ferries in well-heeled tourists to the island’s elite resorts. Ambergis Caye is one of the primary tourist destinations of the Caribbean nation. The mosque parking lot is filled not with cars but the golf carts that are ubiquitous to the island.

Just as ubiquitous are the large iguanas, often drawing the attention of barking dogs. Yet, what really separates the mosque from other religious institutions in Belize is that most of the congregants are related.

Malak Harmouche, a pillar in San Pedro's community

Lebanese-born Malak Harmouche is the mosque’s imam part-time and a full-time hardware store owner. When prayer is over, the robes are off, and he races back to the hardware store he owns, stopping only to pick up a check sealed with staples that have just arrived from the mainland.

The hardware store shelves are stacked high with weed wackers, tiles of various types and Samsung televisions. Colorful children’s tricycles hang from one wall. In front of his desk, which is stacked high with business documents and copies of the Quran, a Belizean client is waiting for him to return from prayer. After a brief, friendly discussion, he offers the man a piece of furniture on credit.

“I moved here 20 years ago, and I haven’t been to Lebanon in 20 years,” Harmouche says. “I found this place to be virgin territory, can I say, from a business perspective. I have given on credit half a million in merchandise that is being slowly paid off.”

Just minutes later, the phone rings, and his generosity is reciprocated by a family member in Belize who says part of the stock recently shipped to him is to be treated as a gift. He smiles and thanks him in Arabic. Later a man shows up with $110, a partial payment on a television. The accounting is done largely by hand. Malak looks through his receipts and records. The payment is found to be $5 larger than was expected, and he returns the change to the patron.

Malak has turned down money before. When the mosque was built in 2000, there were many in the community who felt he should be paid a stipend for his role as the imam of the mosque. He says he refused: “For me, I do this work for Allah’s blessing alone. I was an imam in Lebanon, and now I am one here.”

A man sits at his desk, smiling.

Malak Harmouche on the phone with a relative at his hardware store.

Joseph Hammond

Unlikely ties with the U.S.

The island’s Muslims are either members of the Harmouche family or were invited to do business in Belize by the same family. Only three or four Muslims on the islands are converts, usually the wives of Lebanese-Belizean businessmen. It was just such a romance that produced the small Muslim community in San Pedro, which has an unlikely American connection.

In the 1980s, with the Lebanese Civil War raging, Simon Harmouche, a relative of Malak’s, went abroad to study at Loyola University in New Orleans. There were a few Lebanese at the school, including a Belizean woman and Loyola student who was also of partial Lebanese descent through a grandparent. Simon eventually married her, and the couple moved to Belize City and opened a hardware store. It was an unusual choice given that, at the time, opportunities in the family business were abundant.

"The Lebanese community dominates the hardware industry in Belize now."

The Harmouche family business at the time was exporting Lebanese fruit to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in the summer, when Lebanon’s apples, oranges and peaches were in season. Then came the Gulf War, which devastated the market. Simon began encouraging his brothers and family members to join him in Belize, where there were many opportunities.

“The Lebanese community dominates the hardware industry in Belize now but not entirely,” Malak Harmouche says. “One of the major suppliers and a good friend of mine is a Jewish businessman who is a hardware supplier in Belize City.”

Malak’s phone is constantly ringing with WhatsApp calls from family members as far off as Houston, Texas, and Alexandria, Egypt. He hasn’t been to Lebanon in 17 years but doesn’t hesitate to offers guests “ma’amoul,” a traditional Lebanese butter cookie with dried fruit. As customers come and go, he switches between English, Spanish and Arabic.

Masjed Al-Akramin in Belize.

Malak Harmouche is the imam of the mosque in San Pedro, Belize.

Joseph Hammond

The various faith communities of Belize

“Everyone in San Pedro knows a member of the Harmouche family,” says Ahmad Harmouche, who runs the One Love golf cart business aimed at tourists. “We are important contributors to the business community.”

Ahmad says that the community tried to support a halal restaurant that opened a few years ago. However, local customers would walk out, leaving their shawarma behind, upon learning that there was no beer on offer. The imam personally raised a goat for the Eid Al-Fitr holiday so it could be slaughtered in a halal way. The local police chief has attended the community’s celebrations in the past, and he stressed that there are no tensions between members of various faith communities.

The Muslims here are like anyone else.

Outside of San Pedro, Belize is home to a handful of scattered mosques around the country. Estimates suggest there are 600 Muslims in Belize. It received independence from the United Kingdom in 1981, and indeed, the earliest Muslim immigration to the country is tied closely to the history of the British Empire. In the mid-19th century, a handful of Indian Muslims moved to Belize. Today there is also an Aḥmadiyyah Muslim Community as well.

“They pay taxes and bring goods and services,” says Jimmy Zometa, a commercial fisherman in San Pedro who lives near the mosque. “So the Muslims here are like anyone else. In Belize, this is all that matters.”

* Joseph Hammond is a former Fulbright fellow and journalist who has reported extensively from Africa, Eurasia and the Middle East.

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In Northern Kenya, Where Climate Change Is Measured In Starving Children

The worst drought in 40 years, which has deepened from the effects of climate change, is hitting the young the hardest around the Horn of Africa. A close-up look at the victims, and attempts to save lives and limit lasting effects on an already fragile region in Kenya.

Photo of five mothers holding their malnourished children

At feeding time, nurses and aides encourage mothers to socialize their children and stimulate them to eat.

Georgina Gustin

KAKUMA — The words "Stabilization Ward" are painted in uneven black letters above the entrance, but everyone in this massive refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya, calls it ya maziwa: The place of milk.

Rescue workers and doctors, mothers and fathers, have carried hundreds of starving children through the doors of this one-room hospital wing, which is sometimes so crowded that babies and toddlers have to share beds. A pediatric unit is only a few steps away, but malnourished children don’t go there. They need special care, and even that doesn’t always save them.

In an office of the International Rescue Committee nearby, Vincent Opinya sits behind a desk with figures on dry-erase boards and a map of the camp on the walls around him. “We’ve lost 45 children this year due to malnutrition,” he says, juggling emergencies, phone calls, and texts. “We’re seeing a significant increase in malnutrition cases as a result of the drought — the worst we’ve faced in 40 years.”

From January to June, the ward experienced an 800 percent rise in admissions of children under 5 who needed treatment for malnourishment — a surge that aid groups blame mostly on a climate change-fueled drought that has turned the region into a parched barren.

Opinya, the nutrition manager for the IRC here, has had to rattle off these statistics many times, but the reality of the numbers is starting to crack his professional armor. “It’s a very sad situation,” he says, wearily. And he believes it will only get worse. A third year of drought is likely on the way.

More children may die. But millions will survive malnutrition and hunger only to live through a compromised future, researchers say. The longer-term health effects of this drought — weakened immune systems, developmental problems — will persist for a generation or more, with consequences that will cascade into communities and societies for decades.

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