Now, don’t get me wrong – I find a good rant as funny as the next guy. And that’s fine, If it’s meant to be funny. Funny is good. Satire is good. Pointing out the absurdities and ironies of life is cathartic. There’s also a lot to be said about pointing out inequalities,unfairness and the galvanising impact of righteous indignation. It’s important to know that things are bad so that we can fix them, or at least attempt to. But JUST pointing out that things are bad, and cynically focusing on the weaknesses and flaws of human being isn’t helping, on any level. I should know. I’ve done my fair share of cynical mocking in my time and all I’ve got to say about it is that it achieves nothing. So that’s the point of this blog – to say it loud and say it proud that right now, right while you’re sitting there, millions of people all over the world, having seen and noted that there’s room for improvement, are taking action and trying to make things better. And here’s the thing – they’re succeeding.
A few years ago I noticed that there are lots of social initiatives where communities ‘look after their own’. For instance there are organisations that care for elderly members of a certain ethnic groups, or certain religious communities. And that’s fine, up to a point. People may have certain needs and requirements that only others of the same background may be aware of so I can see the point of all that. But I also noticed that one type of social activism that was open to all regardless of race or ethnicity was the ‘soup kitchen’. I used to help out,years ago, at a soup kitchen organised by the Salvation Army on Sundays by the river at Hungerford Bridge and the benefits of that kind of work are pretty obvious. One day I was in the local shopping ‘mall’ (I found my self there by accident really – I avoid those places as best I can but my search for a relatively inexpensive pair of jeans bought me to River Island, God help me) Outside a group of young Muslim men had set up a stall giving out pamphlets and books about Islam. Against my better judgement (one day I might learn not to do this) I got into a conversation with them and we talked about how I could avoid being sent to hell for eternity. At some point I mentioned to them an idea I’d had for a while – a soup kitchen set up by Muslims. I said that this would be a great way to combat the stereotype that Muslim’s weren’t members of the larger community and it would also simply help people and that had to be a good thing. My idea got pretty short shrift at the time (something about me not being a practicing Muslim got to them),but I kept thinking about the idea for a long time.
So it was with a heartfelt sense of satisfaction that I heard about The Children of Adam. Since late 2011 this group have been feeding the homeless of London’s Glittering West End every Sunday evening, come rain or shine,at the south western corner of Lincoln Inn Fields by setting up some tables and asking volunteers to come along with food and drink. And here’s the thing – the idea was started, and seems to be run mainly by, Muslim women.
I decided to go along one Sunday and lend a helping hand, as well as find out more about the work they do, and after much scheduling and rescheduling between myself and some friends I went along one cold Sunday in April along with one of Berakah’s trustees, the wonderful Shareefa Choudry. We met at about 5pm at Holborn tube station and headed overt to the Sainsbury across the road to buy some food to contribute. After much middle class agonising (“Oh, what dips shall we get? Should we buy organic bananas? What about the vegetarians?” – admittedly, that discussion was mainly down to me) we decided to stick with basic stuff that was tasty so we loaded up on fruit, finger buffet style food and some hummus and pitta bread and made our way to Lincoln Inn Field.
We’d arrived a little early but even by 5.30 ish a pretty considerable queue of about 50 or 60 people had already built up. I figured that as the soup kitchen had been running for some time there must be regular attendees who knew the runnings well enough to know that queuing was important. Later on I realised just how important the idea of a queue actually is in this kind of situation. After a few minutes some cars arrived and people who looked like they knew what they were doing started to arrive so after a few introductions I helped set up some tables and as more volunteers arrived we started to put the food out. It was at this stage that things became a little confused.
The people who had formed the queue obviously knew where the tables would be set up but the complication this time was there was a film crew filming something just a few yards away and the queue was in shot. A member of the production crew came over to ask the organisers if they could move the tables and queue to a spot just a few feet over so that they would be out of shot of the cameras so we grabbed the tables and hauled them about 3 or four feet over, but the main issue was the queue. A few people asked the queuers to move over and gave very clear instructions about keeping their places in the queue but it fell on deaf ears and you could see that some people who had been near the front of the queue had lost their places in the reshuffle and started to get very annoyed. It was no one’s fault and it was unavoidable but I could see how losing your place if you’d been there for a while would leave one peeved. Obviously the tables are run on a first come first serve basis so queuing is taken very seriously by both organisers and clientele.
Anyway, we finally managed to start getting the food out and to my surprise someone bought out about 150 take away containers of hot food. Apparently every other week an anonymous donor shells out big bucks to provide hot food and this week the choice was veg pasta, lamb and rice or rice served with a volunteers home made chick pea curry. There was plenty of bread, soft drinks, water, juice and tea or coffee. Shareefa took on sugar duties (standing there with a spoon and a bowl of sugar so that people could help themselves) whilst I helped to hand out the hot food. Another group of volunteers manned the area where food from Pret was being handed out. COA have a charity commission number so are able to have food that would be thrown away donated to them which is really great. I’m a bit partial to Pret toasties me’ self but in this case the food was mainly wraps,sandwiches and salads. The amount of food that chains chuck away is a scandal and this is a brilliant way to use food that would otherwise be disposed of.
As I handed out the hot food I tried to get a good look at the people queuing. People from all races,black,white,Asian,Arabs. I heard people talking with Eastern European accents, I saw men and women, some quite well dressed,others so unkempt that it could make you weep if you thought about it for too long. I saw people who looked healthy and I saw others who looked as if, God forbid, they weren’t long for the world. In some people’s eyes I saw weariness and loneliness, and in others I saw a glint of something that I can’t describe. Some people smiled and said thank you as they filed past, some said nothing and just pointed to what they wanted and some didn’t look at me. Or anyone else.
One person, a small lady dressed in dirty pink clothes, looked like our typical image of a homeless person. She was unkempt and haggard and I’d seen her hovering quietly and warily around the edges of the queue for some time. I thought, with some shame, about the kinds of words that many of us casually use to describe people like that, and I thought about the Todd Rundgren song. “Bag Lady’. I felt the urge to talk to her, to find out more about her and why she was where she was but I was very aware that I might just come over as self conscious, bleeding heart do-gooder, trying to assuage my middle class guilt by being all ‘matey’ and chatty, all awkward and cod empathic. No, I thought, just help, and watch. Take it all in. Leave the counselling for another, more appropriate time. Right now these people just want to eat.
A few people tried to jostle their way to the front of the queue much to the annoyance of others but luckily there was a largely built man who was one of the volunteers who reminded people, in no uncertain terms, that they would not be allowed to push in and that it was rude and unnecessary to do so. One of the things I’ve learned from doing the odd bits of voluntary work is that being direct and systematic is actually the only way to get things done in those situations. The rules are there to make sure everyone gets treated fairly and even though a dumb ass bleeding heart liberal like me might bend the rules a bit ( I may have given someone a bit more bread, or served someone out of sequence – sorry!) it’s actually important that this kind of thing is not only fair but seen to be fair.
I noticed quite a few people in the queue were getting the food and putting it in their bags or pockets, saving it for later. A few came back for seconds and did the same. Some of them really, honestly, did not know where their next meal was going to come from.
As I mentioned earlier on, the soup kitchen was set up by Muslim women and most of the volunteers were women in headscarves, although there were quite a few who weren’t in headscarf and there were a few men. The volunteers were chatty and friendly and I stood next to one lady who was both warm,funny and clearly very strong. At one point a guy, maybe in his mid 30’s and swarthy looking, tried to push in line and she asked him,firmly but politely, to get back in the queue. He said something back in Arabic tat was clearly not nice and she replied,quite calmly I thought, in Arabic. The guy trying to push the queue went red in the face and moved away, muttering. The lady laughed to herself but I could tell that wasn’t a pleasant interaction. After a few minutes I asked what had gone down. She told me that he’d sworn at her in Arabic and she’d told him off.
“He comes from a country where women don’t even speak in public,let alone answer back.”
Eventually,after about an hour, the food started to run out and the small crowd of people, maybe 150 or so, started thinning out. People stood around chatting and I took some time to talk to the big guy who,thankfully,kept the queue in line for the most part. It turned out that he was half Palestinian,half Jordanian and we spoke about the Palestinian community in London. I bought up the subject of Israel and we had a very illuminating chat about his thoughts on the future of that region. Earlier I’d also had a brief chat with the lady I’d contacted on FB about volunteering, Hanan, and I found her again and had a slightly longer chat. Obviously she had a lot on her mind and was overseeing the whole shebang with tons of energy and a huge smile so we didn’t chat for too long but I did find out that she’d started the whole thing, and I congratulated her on her hard work and getting idea going. She said thanks for coming to help. I said it was the least I could do. I helped to get the tables back in the car, carried a few heavy bags and said my farewells before heading back to the tube. Shareefa had already chipped about 20 minutes earlier as she had some family stuff to do so I strode off on my own.
My cunning plan had been to head back to Sainsbury and buy my own shopping as I had no food back at Maison Nazam but as I turned the corner my heart sank – Sainsbury was shut! Bloody typical,I thought. Central London on a Sunday and they can’t even be bothered to stay open for us lot who don’t live according to The Man’s clock.
On the walk back to where I’d parked my car, just off Museum Street, I passed a pub in a kind of paved arcade. It was by now about 7 or maybe even 7.30pm and the pub was filled with people laughing and drinking and having what looked like a very jolly time. Outside a few people chatted and smoked. They looked young,healthy.Well off. For a while I stood on a corner, watching them go about. Eventually I walked slowly back to my car, got inside, let out a long slow breath and wondered what the heck I was going to have for dinner.
The Berakah Project
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