The soup kitchen is no easy street
by Izzati Rahman
I am not a veteran volunteer, but I have had my fair share of experience at various soup kitchens across Kuala Lumpur since the age of 16. What I have to say is my own humble opinion and not representative of any organisation I have volunteered with.
From slicing onions to packing and distributing food, soup kitchen volunteers have never been paid.
Most soup kitchens receive monetary aid or food donations from various individuals or corporate sponsors, and food operators.
Each soup kitchen has its own distribution locations (sometimes three or four in a night) at the same spot when they are on duty. Volunteers may change, some are regulars, some are not. The faces of those who come for food also may differ, some are regulars, others are not.
Not all who come to the soup kitchen are homeless, a large number of them are people suffering from poverty.
They are those who earn a very low income and cannot afford to feed their family, single mothers who work double shift on minimum wage and the elderly who are not being cared for.
People who have so little and many mouths to feed – these are the people who line up, day after day.
We feed the homeless, the drug users, the sex workers, the raunchy looking guys with bloodshot red eyes, the man who reeks of booze and can hardly stand straight while queuing up.
We feed the man who pushes a stolen hypermarket trolley with all his worldly possessions inside. We feed them all because they are hungry and because they have problems getting food.
Tengku Adnan was reported to have said, “We give them jobs but they don’t want the jobs because it is easier to get food from the street kitchens feeding them”.
Putrajaya created a plan to give jobs to the jobless, but not jobs for the homeless. Half of the homeless do not even have proper identification as they are born out of prostitution, poverty, or they are mentally unstable and unfit to get a job.
I am pretty sure Tengku Adnan has never gone to the streets as a volunteer so let me give a little introduction.
Soup kitchens in Malaysia are not a walk-in-for-free KFC, open 24 hours for you to come in anytime you like, place your order and walk away with hot, delicious food. We only operate at night as most volunteers have a day job.
There is also the weather and the queue to contend with and trust me, it is not the gourmet food you are used to. It is basic food, just to beat hunger.
Those who come for food, can only come once a day, walk to the distribution centre, bear the weather and queue just to get basic food. Easy? No. It is not.
Following Tengku Adnan’s logic, free food for buka puasa (breaking of fast) at the Masjid should be banned because free food breeds homelessness.
We should ban Langgar meals at Gudhwaras and temples that give out free vegetarian lunches because it will breed homelessness.
We should probably ban the Minister’s lavish open houses during festive seasons (paid by us, the rakyat), because that too may breed homelessness. Go ahead, ban them all.
Soup kitchens cleaner than pasar malam (night markets)
Another reported statement I find hard to stomach is that “soup kitchens cause garbage infested scenes”. Tengku Adnan, this is not a restaurant where we open tables and serve food under the romantic streetlights of “your” city.
The food is packed and those in queues go elsewhere to eat, either at home, or if they are homeless at their normal place of shelter.
There is no space to eat at the distribution centre due to the queue and other services a soup kitchen provide such as a mobile clinic or free haircuts.
Volunteers in charge of the location and queue are responsible to ensure that the area is not dirty and that the people do not cause a scene. Some clean up even though litter was there before the arrival of the soup kitchen.
It’s funny how the existence of soup kitchens have been identified as the reason behind garbage in the area. Has Tengku Adnan ever been to a pasar malam or bazaar ramadan? Customers and stall owners throw rubbish all along the roadside. Have you ever walked down a street on the morning after a pasar malam? It is full of garbage and plastic wrappers. Go shut them down too, why don’t you?
NGOs are the heroes
Tengku Adnan, do you know why the rakyat is so unhappy with this ban?
First and foremost, it is not your city, it is ours. We pay you to run it. Secondly, this ban shows us that your priority is image over welfare.
Orang Melayu kata, “biar papa asalkan bergaya” – mungkin itulah pegangan hidup Tengku Adnan? (the Malays say, ‘it is okay to be dirt poor as long as you are still stylish’ – could this be Tengku Adnan’s philosophy of life?)
Thirdly, because we know what it is like to fall. Sometimes, life pulls the rug from under you and you crash with everything around you. That is when you need help to get back up.
There is no shame in asking for help, but there is great shame when you are so arrogant and stop others from seeking help.
You may be blessed today, you drive your fancy car, live in your big house and eat delicious food all day, every day. But those who queue up for free food did not ask for their lives to be turned upside down.
Lastly, it is because, we, the volunteers and donors, take it upon ourselves to address a problem that is your responsibility and yet you ban us from doing good.
I sincerely hope you learn a few lessons on humility before life teaches it to you the hard way. There’s no shame in wanting to erase poverty and homelessness. In fact I think it’s noble. But there is shame in condemning others, just because life is a little harsh on them.
Nonetheless, I know the NGOs will not let anyone’s ruling stop them, because they are and always will be the true heroes.
Izzati Rahman is a soup kitchen volunteer.