Montreal groups swamped with food basket needs for Ramadan

For many families celebrating Ramadan, there are certain unavoidable kitchen staples that help make nightly gatherings with loved ones special — black olives, green tea, and fine semolina, which is a type of flour used to make couscous.

Local community groups are doing their best to get these products to families who feel the weight of inflation and the increasing cost of living.

The problem is those same groups looking to help are also feeling the crunch.

At a warehouse in Montreal’s Saint-Laurent borough, Afnan El Korbi works tirelessly to gather donations. The organization she volunteers for has not been spared by the growing cost of living.

At the same time, she is noticing an increase in demands for food baskets.

“This year and since the pandemic, it has been more challenging to fill up these baskets with the same amount and quality of products,” said El Korbi, the general secretary of Soleil des Orphelins.

As a result of growing demand, the group was forced to limit the quantity of food in each box. El Korbi says many people depend on them.

“This makes me feel for the people who are more in need,” she said. “They call us saying they have been waiting for the baskets so it is important to be there and meet their needs.”

A person is posing for a photo.
Afnan El Korbi, general secretary of Soleil des Orphelins, counts on her organization’s social media reach to attract donors. (Fred Cusson/Radio-Canada)

The volunteers of Tunisian origin have always had a sense of sharing and giving back, whether it’s here or in her home country. She started volunteering with Soleil des Orphelins because of her father, a member of the administrative board. She also sponsored an orphan in her homeland many years ago and is now providing support to a widow and her two daughters. She says she even had a chance to visit them.

“It was really heartwarming to see the direct impact [of my actions].”

In her work with Soleil des Orphelins, helping families has gotten increasingly more challenging, but her team has ramped up efforts and brought in extra staff to try and get baskets to as many homes as possible during Ramadan.

‘We feel the frustration of the families’

In the city’s Saint-Léonard borough, another organization is also doing its best to accommodate every request. Volunteer and social media personality Yahya Maayouf says people with different income levels come for help.

“It’s people from every class, it’s not only people who don’t work,” he said.

The young Montrealer started volunteering at the Badr Islamic Center five years ago after a summer camp. Over time, his involvement has only grown.

“What I love to do is serve the community,” he said.

There is food in a basket.
Volunteers fill food baskets with items such as semolina, pasta, Moroccan tea and cookies. (Fred Cusson/Radio-Canada)

This year, he noticed a change at the center. He said the number of families seeking help has exploded. Last year, an average of 130 families would seek the center’s help every week but this year, that number has shot up to about 200 — way more than the organization can accommodate.

“We feel the frustration of the families,” said Maayouf. “It’s more difficult [to help] because we don’t have unlimited budget. That is why we need some help.”

The Badr Islamic Center and the Soleil des Orphelins are both looking for long-term solutions, such as getting government help or donations from private businesses.

El Korbi says her organization is also trying to use social media for exposure, in hopes of getting people to donate.

A cameraman films her team’s every move as it stockpiles food baskets. The group publishes content on social media in hopes of getting the word out about the work they are doing.

“The more we hear about baskets, the program and Soleil des Orphelins, the more we’ll have donations,” said the general secretary.

She later smiled and said: “When we receive more, we give more.”

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