Members of the Philadelphia Ahmadiyya youth group are seen picking up litter around Independence National Park in Old City over the weekend in response to the federal shutdown. (Provided)

The increasingly irritating federal government shutdown has left federal employees around the country without a paycheck and several important federal services unfunded. Unfortunate side effects include the neglect of U.S. National Parks — and in Philadelphia, that means Independence National Park, right in the heart of Old City. The birthplace of the nation, where the Declaration of Independence was signed, has in recent weeks been disgraced wiith blight, litter and overflowing garbage cans.

But the founding fathers would probably smile this past weekend, as a group of local Muslim youth volunteers took to Independence Mall with rakes and bags to pick up the trash that the administrators of government left out to rot.

"We basically are just Americans and doing what is right," said Fraz Tanvir, 26 head of the Philadelphia Ahmadiyya Society's youth group, of the cleanup. "We did it because that's what we've been taught."

Tanvir showed up with a group of two dozen volunteers on Jan. 5 to clean up Independence National Park. Park rangers told them they had been expecting other volunteer groups, but only the Ahmadis turned up — possibly due to the heavy rain and cold temperatures, Tanvir said.

 

"It was pouring rain, it was freezing, but we had 15 to 20 guys there working for two hours or so," Tanvir said.

They emptied trash cans and picked up litter, filling a truck with trash bags as they scoured the area between 5th and 6th streets and Arch and Walnut streets, including Independence Mall by the Liberty Bell and Washington Square behind Independence Hall.

"If we were going to go there, we weren't going to do one little spot and leave," Tanvir said.

 

Coming together for the common good during federal shutdown

Tanvir and the other volunteers are Ahmadi Muslims, an Islamic sect founded a century ago that has 20 million members worldwide out of the world's estimated 1.6 billion Muslims.

Some Ahmadis have faced ostracization from other Muslim communities, as the sect was by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, an Indian who Ahmadis consider a prophet. Other Muslims say that Mohammed was the last divine prophet. This conflict has erupted over the years, including in Pakistan, where Ahmadis are not legally considered Muslims, and have even been attacked, such as in a 2010 Lahore suicide bombing on Ahmadi mosques that killed 86 and injured dozens more.

Locally, Ahmadis have had a society in Philadelphia since 1960, and in 2018, opened their brand-new Baitul Aafiyat mosque at Broad and Glenwood in North Philly.

The society has undertaken many community service and public beautification projects, including highway cleanups, tree plantings, and cleanups at Jewish cemeteries that have been vandalized.

As Ahmadis in Philadelphia cleaned up Independence National Park, other youth groups were undertaking similar service projects at parks around the nation, including Joshua Tree, the Everglades, Washington D.C.'s National Mall, and Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio.

"His Holiness Mirza Masroor Ahmad [international leader of Ahmadiyya Muslims] said we would wipe away the tears of our neighbors during times of distress," Tanvir said. "We're trying to humbly serve our nation and community when there's times of need."

And if the shutdown doesn't get resolved? "In case this shutdown is still going on, we'll come back. ... we would do it again the next Saturday or Sunday," Tanvir affirmed.

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