At the beginning of the pandemic, business at the usually bustling Sakina Halal Grill in downtown Washington, D.C., had so slowed that owner Kazi Mannan decided to close the Pakistani-Indian restaurant for a few months. When he reopened in July, only a few customers trickled in. He said he was making just $500 to $600 a day in sales, compared with about $80,000-$90,000 a month before the restrictions.

“I’m a very positive person, and always when I get up I say, ‘Things will change,’” Mannan said. “But I’m losing so much money I can’t really afford. … I don’t know what to do.”

He decided to turn to the community for help — a role reversal, after helping others for years. Since it opened in 2013, Mannan’s K Street restaurant has been serving as many as 80 free meals a day to people in need. So Mannan set up a GoFundMe page, which was quickly shared and soon caught the eye of human rights lawyer Arsalan Iftikhar.

“I literally thought to myself, dude, there is no justice in this world if a restaurant that feeds the homeless goes down on our watch,” said Iftikhar. “I’m not going to let that happen.”

He shared Manna’s story with his nearly 60,000 Twitter followers, a few others publicized the page, and within days, close to $300,000 had been sent to the GoFundMe (the fund is now closed).

“I am overwhelmed,” Mannan said. “People are angels. They understood my pain and came in and rescued me.”

Mannan said the donations will cover expenses, about $45,000 a month, and help him rehire some staff. Meantime, he said, more food orders have been coming in from patrons.

“My dream is to go back to the same old ways,” he said, when “anybody who can’t afford a meal, can come in. … Now it looks like that dream is coming into reality.”

Another dream, he said, is to use any leftover donations to fund a foundation to support other restaurants in feeding the homeless or hungry. The need is great, especially in D.C., where 6,380 people are homeless (as of 2020), according to an annual survey by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments released in June.

Prior to opening his restaurant in 2013, Mannan recalled, he would drive around D.C., see people experiencing homelessness and think, “Oh, God, if I ever had a restaurant, what I’m going to do first thing, I’ll announce, let them come in and have dignity and respect and eat.”

The first day he opened, he said he brought in dozens of homeless people who were gathered in nearby Franklin Square, previously an unofficial refuge for the homeless, to offer them a meal.

“I was sharing my love, kindness and joy with others, and now the same thing I’m receiving,” he said. “I’m on the other side, and I’m receiving the same love, kindness, and joy.”