Volunteers at the Muslim Food Bank. From left: Moona Ali

Forging community connections

In addition to receiving basic necessities, newcomers in need find friendship and learn basic skills at the Muslim Food Bank.

Mainu Ahmed works his way though dozens of people on a busy weekend morning at the Muslim Food Bank (MFB).

“It’s a gong show,” he admits, showing a visitor the different activities and sections of the bustling North Surrey warehouse.

It’s like this every second Saturday, with upwards of 120 families going through the process of registering and picking up hampers – a similar process seen at many other food banks.

But this one is different.

Ahmed estimates that approximately 80 per cent of the clients are refugees, just the latest trend at a food bank that has catered to the Lower Mainland’s Muslim community since 2010.

Syrian refugees are not just present in the news, they’re already out helping in the community. One volunteer at the food bank, Osama Alkhamis, arrived in Canada just three weeks ago. He still lives in transitional housing at a hotel.

Speaking almost no English, Alkhamis gets by, conversing with the food bank’s other Arabic speakers.

Volunteer Alishia Rajabali says she’s seen improvised – and usually successful – sign language in her year of volunteering at the MFB.

Apart from the relatively common English and Arabic language skills among clients, there are those who speak Farsi, Urdu, Hindi and Swahili – and different dialects of those languages.

“We’re all from different backgrounds,” she says.

The certified general accountant and recruiter for an accounting firm says she began volunteering at the MFB after hearing about it from a woman she was interviewing for a job. That woman got the job, while Rajabali found a place to volunteer every second week.

Like any food bank, the MFB relies on donations of food and cash from businesses and individuals.

It has also fostered relationships over the years with organizations such as the Surrey Food Bank, which has always had Muslim clients, but wasn’t able cater to their halal (foods that are permissible for Muslims to eat or drink under Islamic law) dietary needs.

“The halal stuff, we give to them, and the non-halal stuff, they give to us,” says Surrey Food Bank Director of External Relations Feezah Jaffer, who adds they often donate large batches of items such as flour or cooking oil to the MFB.

Food is just one part of the society – formally the MFB and Community Services Society.

It’s a massive organization with hundreds of volunteers, many of them case workers who provide clients with services – including all Muslim refugees – with support the minute they arrive in Canada.

The MFB steps in to support its partner, Immigrant Services Society of B.C.

The day they arrive, Syrian refugees are provided with housing (temporary, then permanent) and given hampers that include familiar foods – such as chick peas, yogurt and pita.

Included are toiletries for an entire family.

Before long, they are provided with translators, baby packs (including cribs and bassinets), school supplies and counselling. The latter is often extensive.

Ahmed, a co-founder of the organization, says many of the refugees have been through traumatic experiences and are given extra support.

At left: Mainu Ahmed.

Within weeks, they  receive more hampers, are accompanied on their first shopping trips and rides on public transit, are taught Canadian cultural norms in workshops, are given medical and dental support, and receive referrals to available services, schools, jobs and conversational English language classes (some provided at mosques).

One term that pops up in conversation with Ahmed is “case workers.”

Not only are there currently 106 of these volunteers out in the community, there are several in cubicles set up at the MFB warehouse every second Saturday during hamper pick-up day.

The case workers, part of the MFB’s wide-ranging Aspire program, provide one-on-one counselling – everything from giving out information about housing, to connecting families with similar backgrounds who reside in the same community.

“All you need is a passion that you want to help people,” Ahmed says of the case workers.

Ahmed says the role of the MFB is to prepare clients to not need the food bank.

“Food bank operation are really a very small part of what we do. Our main aim is recovery of the individual.”

The food bank also provides choices of donated clothes – “clothing with dignity,” says Ahmed.

It’s displayed on clothes hangers, not in bags.

“My instruction to the team is that if you won’t wear it, nobody else will wear it. It’s as simple as that.”

Ahmed says even before the Syrian crisis, a majority of the MFB’s clients were already refugees.

He says they all deserve respect and wants to dispel the myth that they are uneducated or unskilled.

One recent client was an intern at Middle Eastern hospital.

“It’s such a big spectrum of people.”

The Muslim Food Bank, located at #101-13085 115 Ave., is open every second Saturday, and client families can register to receive a hamper once a month. For more information about its services or to volunteer, call 1-866-824-2525.

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