Pakistani aid group sees former recipients return as volunteers for Ramadan food drive

The coronavirus pandemic has left many Pakistanis relying on aid groups like Hamdard Haath for food

Hamdard Haath's Ramadan iftar drive is seeing more interest than ever. Courtesy Hamdard Haath
Hamdard Haath's Ramadan iftar drive is seeing more interest than ever. Courtesy Hamdard Haath

A Pakistani student aid group is seeing a huge increase in food aid requests over Ramadan this year as Covid-19 continues to ravage lives and the economy.

Hamdaard Haath is now in its fifth year of operation, catering to the needy in Pakistan’s two largest cities, Lahore and Karachi. Some of those volunteers were once recipients of the group’s food aid.

The group says they are receiving many more requests for food aid than last year, and increasing popularity of their dastarkhwans, a sit down iftar where volunteers set up food and refreshments for passersby.

One such recipient is 65 year old Rukhsana, who visits the open iftar outside Al Rehman Marquee, close to one of Lahore’s busiest roads, with her grandson, who accompanied her to make sure she didn’t have to be alone.

She said this is the first time she had heard of the iftar drive, through younger family members who she lives with.

“We’re a big family, and we usually have iftar at home, but when I heard about this I wanted to come here. This is God’s work they’re doing here.”

Covid-19 restrictions largely curtailed the Hamdaard Haath’s activities since the pandemic began, but this Ramadan the teams in Karachi and Lahore gained permission to carry out their standard dastarkhwans.

Malik Hamail, one of the founding members of the group said that for his group of young students, the only goal was to make a dent in the rampant hunger across Karachi, where the group was founded.

“We started off with giving out iftar boxes about half an hour before iftar time, across the city, trying to cover as much ground as we could.”

The team would get together in their own cars and drive around busy areas of the city, handing out boxes to labourers, rough sleepers and anyone else who approached.

The operation has professionalised somewhat since the days of scattered deliveries, and spread to Pakistan’s second largest city, Lahore. It’s a good job, as demand for their help is higher than ever.

Where they would usually receive a few hundred applications for Ramadan rashans, this year they received over 1500 as the economy has taken a hard hit. The country’s GDP has plummeted from 5 per cent in 2018,to -0.4 per cent in 2019-2020 and as lockdowns continue experts predict the situation will worsen.

Just this week Pakistan saw its highest death toll of the pandemic at 201 deaths and the country is moving towards yet another strict lockdown. For informal working sectors, which employ predominantly women and daily wage labourers, this could mean a loss of income indefinitely.

“Over the last two Ramadans, amidst the pandemic, we had over 1500 applications from various areas and communities who normally wouldn’t ask for charity in Ramadan but have been forced to do so due to the pandemic,” said Mr Humail.

A young boy of about 12, accompanied by a group of friends waiting for the dastarkhwan to be set up, said the last two days of having this food drive in Lahore had been a welcome relief.

“Most food drives give food out, and this year there are so many people fighting to take it that as young children, we often get pushed to the side. This way, we get to eat in peace.”

The switch to sit down dastarkhwans was a difficult decision for the group. Rafay Qandhari, another founding member, said the cost of a month’s worth of iftar boxes amounted to only four to five days of serving the dastarkhwan.

But, now in their fourth year of serving food in this way, they’ve become a staple for the communities they serve. Those who once needed the service to eat now return to help others.

“Last year, the pandemic struck us hard and there were days we didn’t have anything to eat,” an office worker volunteering at this year’s dastarkhwan near Karachi’s Khayaban-e-Shahbaz told The National.

“We had to come eat here many times last Ramadan and the comfort of having such a space is a great blessing”, he said, adding that now that he was in a better place he wanted to help the cause forward and do his part.

Needing to cover costs hasn’t been the only challenge they have faced. A single dastarkhwan costs 30-40,000 PKR for a single day and the team is currently hosting 5 of these across two cities, a daily cost of around 150-200,000 PKR.

They run solely on donations and this year the team used Paypal for the first time, to encourage international donations

As costs rise, the group has been forced to reduce the size of food rations to feed more people, an approach that has garnered criticism from some.

“There’s always a critic for everything but we felt that if we could help more people, we would be doing more of what we had aimed to do and so we decided to do larger numbers of smaller rations.”

Hamdaard Haath has come a long way from their first food drive and they don’t plan on stopping.

“We started from 16 rashan bags,” says Qandhari. “Last year, we made 7000. The only thing is we never stopped believing in ourselves”.

Published: May 6, 2021 03:00 AM

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