As people across the country gathered for Thanksgiving weekend, a new type of gathering was taking place in Regent Park.
Hundreds of people came together at the Christian Resource Centre in the early afternoon Sunday for the first free halal luncheon put on by the Muslim Welfare Centre, a charitable organization launched in Toronto more than two decades ago.
Sun streamed through the front windows of the modern centre, lighting up the long, narrow room full of tables covered in bright teal cloths. At those tables sat people from all faiths and all walks of life — Muslims, Christians, Regent Park residents, homeless people, and others — chowing down on plates brimming with chicken, rice, buns and salad. Volunteers chatted and joked with diners as they filled cups and served food, making the charity meal more four-star than cafeteria-style.
Muhammad Iqbal Ali stood at the door to the community centre, welcoming guests as if they were entering his home. His eyes glowed with pride as he watched total strangers come together over a warm meal.
The get-together, he said, would have delighted Muhammad “Major” Abbas Ali, and his wife, Sarwar Jahan Begum, who founded the Muslim Welfare Centre.
The revered couple, already seniors when they launched the centre starting with a small halal food bank in 1993, is also his father and mother, Ali said.
“Major” Abbas, as he was known to friends and family, a reference to his time served in Pakistan’s army, loved to serve others, said his son.
“He used to say that anyone can be of help to the larger community if that person has the will and the persistence to do it. He was poor, he was a retired army major, he didn’t own anything.”
The Major loved to walk, his son said, a testament to his time in the army. He embarked on long charity walks, from Toronto to Ottawa, to London, just to collect funds for charities.
His mantra never changed, and when his now decades-old charity launched, it followed the same tune.
“From day one, our slogan has been, “Service to humanity is service to Allah,’” his son said.
Since 1993, the Muslim Welfare Centre has grown from one food bank. The Scarborough-headquartered organization now runs two food banks — one in Mississauga, one in Whitby — that serve almost 9,000 families in the Greater Toronto Area. They can house up to 45 needy women and children at a shelter in Whitby. An emergency motel, also in Whitby, offers a place for families to go when in need. Local doctors donate their time to a free clinic the organization offers, accepting people who don’t have coverage like new immigrants, refugees and visitors.
And the meals keep coming, not just on Sunday’s.
Centre volunteers have been provided hot halal lunches to homeless people for the last 14 years, not a single Saturday missed, Ali said.
“We bring out lunch bags here to downtown Toronto. Three or four different spots here in the downtown area and people are already lined up. At 12:30 they know that the Muslim Welfare van is going to come,” Ali said. “Each and every Saturday, whatever the weather, the circumstances. Winter what we do is we bring them warm clothes as well.”
The centre’s latest venture comes to Regent Park, where the Muslim community currently accounts for about 60 per cent of the area and continues to grow, Ali said.
As the community grows, Ali said he hopes to continue bringing everyone together, just like his father would have wanted.
“We serve everyone in the community irrespective of their class, creed, nationality, religion. We’re all family.”
Source: The Star