Inside a one-story medical building in Garden Grove, the aroma of pungent Middle Eastern and Indian spices hangs in the air. The atmosphere is hushed. A veiled woman quickly pulls back behind a door to avoid visitors, and the men murmur the Islamic greeting "Salaam aleikum," peace unto you.
The brown building has no name or distinguishing sign, but it houses Orange County's only shelter specifically for homeless Muslims. It has room for 23 people.
There are shelters throughout the county to house single men, families and battered women and their children, and several with a strong Christian bent. But until the Garden Grove facility opened in August, none had been just for Muslims--many of whom are reluctant for religious reasons to go to shelters where there may be alcoholics and drug addicts.
The shelter is the project of Haitham Bundakji, 49, chairman of the Islamic Society of Orange County and a well-to-do real estate investor who lives in Fountain Valley. Bundakji, married with seven children, is from Jordan. God has blessed him abundantly, he said, and he wants to share his wealth.
He bought the Brookhurst Street building for $240,000 last summer and said he expects to spend another $100,000 for renovations. Bundakji said he will not take a tax write-off for the charity because any reward will come from the Almighty.
City officials, advocates for the homeless, community leaders and police officers praise Bundakji's work.
"It's terrific that he should be so supportive, because we certainly need more shelter beds," said Dolores Barrett, director of social services for the Salvation Army in Orange County. "It seems like such a high level of generosity. . . . It's a very welcome example to show how, once you make money, you can give it back."
Bundakji's journey to helping the homeless began 2 1/2 years ago, when the Islamic Society of Orange County started a campaign to teach people about Islam and to dispel the perception that the religion endorses terrorism. The mosque designated Bundakji as goodwill emissary.
He is a mixture of humility and humor, business sense and savvy. A pause in conversation is sure to invite a joke.
Islam, however, is a serious subject, and ignorance about it pains him.
"Islam means peace. It means submission--a willingness to obey the will of God," Bundakji said. "There are 1.8 billion Muslims in the world, and 99.9% are peace-loving."
To spread this message, he joined the Interfaith Council of Garden Grove, Westminster and Santa Ana, a group of clergy and lay people who promote understanding among religions. One of Bundakji's council activities was serving lunch to the homeless.
Soon the Almighty, Bundakji said, taught him not to see homelessness as a stain on a person's character.
But it struck him that Muslims were rarely among those being fed.
And Bundakji knew there were needy Muslims. It was his unpleasant task to patrol the Islamic Society's grounds and roust homeless people who had jumped the fence seeking a place to sleep. Reluctantly, he would send them back into the night, often while they begged for shelter.
"I'd be asleep at 2 or 3 in the morning, and he would come find me," said Sam Chakwa, 57, who used to sleep on the mosque's grounds. "Islam does not allow you to hate anyone, but . . . I did not like him."
Now Chakwa has nothing but praise for the man who has given him a home and helped restore his dignity.
"For two years I was sleeping in a van when Brother Haitham opened the shelter and told me, 'You can go and stay there and cook for yourself,' " he said. "Before, I was full of stress, very angry and always ready to fight. Now I am happy."
Residents are permitted to stay two months, and they do their own cooking, although groceries are provided. Bundakji's network of friends offers them medical exams, job advice, family mediation and spiritual counseling. There is no paid staff, but Chakwa acts as a caretaker, and volunteers from the Islamic Society help out.
In Chakwa's meticulous room, clothes hang neatly from a rod attached to the ceiling. A prayer mat is folded on a chest of drawers, and a gilded miniature of the Dome of the Rock--the Jerusalem site from which Muslims believe that the prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven--chimes five times daily, calling Chakwa to prayer.
The shelter is more than a place to spend the night. It provides a religious and cultural sanctuary.
"I found out these people felt uncomfortable to go [to other homeless shelters]. They needed a place where people spoke the same language and where they'd be able to perform their prayers properly," Bundakji said.
At the shelter, Islam unites a diverse group of residents from such countries as India, Pakistan, Yemen, Mali and Russia. Many speak Arabic in addition to the languages of their native lands.