11 April 2016

Mary Mags in the News - April 2016

Lainie Anderson: We should applaud the wonderful Muslim volunteers helping the homeless in Adelaide

Last Saturday night, while most of us had our feet up in front of the TV, a group of volunteers was busy at a drop-in centre in the city.

They cooked a three-course meal and offered the hand of friendship to some of South Australia’s most marginalised people – men and women experiencing homelessness or down on their luck.

“I got emotional a number of times throughout the night,” says volunteer Zahra Fathi.

“All these people walked in with huge smiles on their faces; they were genuinely happy and it seemed like they enjoyed talking with people as much as they enjoyed the meal.

“They were so friendly and patient and so appreciative – I absolutely loved it.”

When a Sunday Mail reader rang to tell me about a group of Muslim youths volunteering at an inner-city soup kitchen, I thought it might be a story worth sharing.

Zahra, 20, is a member of the Islamic Society of SA.

She was one of 15 young men and women who volunteered after seeing a call-out on Facebook through the Building Bridges program, a Catholic initiative aimed at fostering friendship and understanding with Muslims.

Every Saturday night for nearly three decades, groups such as Building Bridges have been rostered to turn up at the Collective of St Mary Magdalene Drop-in Centre, in Moore St, city.

They provide all the ingredients, cook the meal and sit down to share it with strangers.

A passionate bunch of Anglican youths created the drop-in centre in 1989, and Anglican parishes continue to provide many of the volunteers (St Mary Magdalene’s Parish also provides its Misson Hall for a token rent).

On other weekends, the meals might be provided by medical students, lawyers, Catholic parishes or school students from the likes of Seymour, Concordia and St Peter’s Girls.

“The people who come in for a free meal are our patrons and we want them to be treated like they’ve been invited to a dinner party,” says the collective’s 27-year-old chairwoman, Alexandra Christopher.

“Of course, it can be a bit confronting sometimes, but it’s a really special experience – it’s one of the few places where all social barriers are broken down and everyone is equal.

“And when you look closer, these people actually have a beautiful community, they look out for one another.”

Between 70 and 100 people are fed each weekend, yet the collective receives not one cent of government funding – not for the food, the labour, the insurance or other ongoing running costs.

Alexandra and the management team are all volunteers, too. She’s a 27-year-old government policy worker who was invited to help out about eight years ago and has been involved ever since.

“This place draws people in – it’s special.”

Zahra Fathi, who immigrated to Australia with her family when she was a toddler, felt it too.

“I’m very strong in my faith – I wear the hijab. I love Adelaide. It was good to give something back and help others who are less fortunate and marginalised,” she says.

So I asked Zahra if she ever felt marginalised herself, as a Muslim woman in SA.

“Very rarely,” she said. “I work at Kmart while I’m studying to be a teacher and some of the customers can be impolite when they first see me in my hijab.

“I disregard the bad things they say, keep smiling and eventually they become nice. Often, they’ll make a point of coming over and saying ‘Hello’ next time.

“I love and appreciate that in Adelaide, most people understand.”

To learn more about the work of the Collective of St Mary Magdalene Drop-in Centre, visit www.cosmm.org.au

If you’d like to volunteer, email Alexandra on alexandra.rose.christopher[at]gmail.com.

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