Noor Javed, the toronto star
It’s the middle of the day on a weekday afternoon, but with the hustle and bustle inside the Muslim Welfare Centre, one could think otherwise.https:
A line of people, some pulling shopping trolleys, make their way to the large food bank situated in a warehouse in a quiet strip mall at Markham Rd. and McLevin Ave. Some have taken the bus to get here; others have hitched rides with friends for their scheduled visit to collect a month’s worth of halal meat and non-perishable ethnic groceries. Dozens of volunteers load the shelves and sort through boxes of donated clothes and furniture that has been dropped off.
“I heard from people that they are a good charity that helps widows,” said Ambio Mahmood, the mother of seven who started using the food bank last year after the death of her husband. She makes the trek from Toronto’s west end to come here once a month, as all clients are allowed. “They help me and my kids,” she said. “They are really good people.”
It was 25 years ago that the Muslim Welfare Centre’s food bank had a humble start in a small 12-foot by 12-foot rented room in the same strip mall. It was the effort of retiree Major Muhammad Abbas Ali and his wife Sarwar Jahan Begum — who saw a need in their new homeland and wanted to do something to help.
Today, more than two decades later, the organization has become one of the most trusted charities in the Muslim community, running dozens of projects, most of which serve communities in the GTA. The charity also employs 55 full-time and part-time employees, and has a roster of hundreds of volunteers who regularly show up to help.
Its growth has been grasroots, and funded by donations from the community. Muhammad Iqbal Ali, whose parents started the charity in 1993, says initial donors were drawn to the organization’s mandate of alleviating poverty in Canada first, before trying to solve problems abroad.
“My father was very committed to the idea that anyone who needs help should be helped, regardless of religion, or background,” said Ali, who balances his role as vice-president of the board and full-time job as an engineer. “His guiding principal was: service to humanity is service to God,” Ali said, adding that the motto is still the mission statement of the charity.
His father, known best as Major Abbas, was a retired army officer from Pakistan who began the charitable organization when he was 72 years old. “And at that time, when people were focused on donating to programs ‘back home,’ he felt that there was a need locally that should be addressed first,” Ali said about his father.
Today, the Muslim Welfare Centre runs two large food banks in the GTA — one in Mississauga and one in Scarborough — which have become a lifeline for thousands of residents. Over 500 families visit the food banks every month. And since the Syrian refugees arrived nearly three years ago, the food bank has registered around 1,700 families into a regular rotation.
“Our food bank costs went up almost 70-80 per cent since the huge influx of refugees came in. We cater to refugees from everywhere,” Ali said.
“We anticipated a big increase, but not this big,” he said. “But thanks to our donors, so far we have not said no to anyone on the basis of capacity.”
But the local food banks are just a small part of the charity’s work. The organization also runs two weekly restaurant-style lunch programs in Malvern and at the Christian Resource Centre in Regent Park, which have served 80,000 meals over the past four years. They also run a halal meals on wheels program, a before-school breakfast program for nearly two dozen Toronto public schools, a free medical clinic for the uninsured and Durham Region’s only women and children’s homeless shelter. They also branched out in 2015, to open a food bank in Inuvik, Northwest Territories in co-operation with the Midnight Sun Mosque, the most northern mosque in Canada.
Last year, according to their 2017 annual report, the Muslim Welfare Centre raised over $3.8 million in donations. The numbers are humbling for Ali, who says that with the money comes immense responsibility.
“We try to be as transparent as possible, so that people can see exactly where the money they give us goes,” he said. “We aren’t a top-heavy organization. We want most of the money to go back to where the need is.”
The seniors and students streaming into the TAIBU Community Health Centre in Malvern for a free lunch program are in for a West-Indian inspired meal: fish, dhaal, potato choka and rice.
The tables fill quickly, as volunteers, including uniformed Toronto police officers, serve food to the guests. The Malvern Eats program, which started in 2016, is a unique partnership between the Muslim Welfare Centre (MWC), Toronto police, the TAIBU centre, the Presbyterian Church, the Malvern Food bank and a neighbourhood organization called 1LoveMalvern.
“The lunch program bridges many relationships in the community,” said Liben Gebremikael, the executive director of TAIBU. Especially in cases when students from nearby schools are served by police officers, “it’s a very different dynamic that you won’t find in many places,” he said.
“The Muslim Welfare Centre is really a very dynamic organization … their programs touch upon all members of the community, the youth, the seniors, newcomers,” Gebremikael said. “And when they are out there serving, they are serving everybody. It doesn’t matter if you are Muslim or not. And that also builds bridges.”
The first major partnership was established early in the charity’s history, when Major Abbas used donations to buy a small building in Durham to open a culturally diverse shelter for women and their families fleeing abuse.
In 1996, they reached out to Durham Region for some funding, and eventually entered into the agreement to run the region’s only emergency shelter for women and children facing homelessness. The charity also runs the region’s motel programs, which provide shelter for families who need accessible care or who have older male children.
“We have a good working relationship with them,” said Diana Chappell, who works in the social services department in Durham. “And they have a really good relationship in the community … they have definitely made their mark in Whitby. It’s all very positive.”
Major Abbas died in 2009 when he was 87.
“It was a real challenge for us. There were people thinking now that the founder is gone, the charity might not last,” Ali said. It was during this time that Ali joined the organization in a more official capacity.
And so the work continued. Within a year of Major Abbas’s death, the charity launched a nutrition program for schools in the Toronto District School Board, and a weekly free medical clinic for the uninsured. “I think people realized that the principles the charity had been started on had not been abandoned,” he said.
Ali admits the organization’s success over the past decade has come from bringing in youth and new ideas. “Many charities do not want to really let younger people come up with idea and put those ideas into practice and allow them to run those projects. Many organizations don’t want to take that risk. We love to work with younger folk, because we allow them to think and put their ideas into practice — and give them a lot of free reign and liberty,” he said.
Engaging social-media-savvy youth has paid off in getting noticed, and support from all levels of government.
Last year, as Ramadan was almost over, the Muslim Welfare Centre received a phone call from the Prime Minister’s Office asking if they could host an event making food baskets for some of the city’s needy, through Project Ramadan, one of the programs run by the organization. The organizers quickly obliged, setting up the event at a few days notice to accommodate Justin Trudeau, MPs and leaders from across the GTA.
This year, Mayor John Tory, Premier Kathleen Wynne and a number of other MPPs have already participated in Project Ramadan in the GTA. The charity also ran an event on Parliament Hill in April — which brought out MPs and senators from across party lines to help build 100 food baskets for the Ottawa food bank.
Ali says despite the “overwhelming” amount of programs and projects on the go on any given day, the charity has no plans to slow down. The organization’s next two priorities are working with First Nations, and eventually building a nursing home to serve the Muslim community in the GTA.
“It’s very important to keep the momentum going. The community is eager to give back, so we want to do whatever we can to make that happen.”