Oldham, UK – “I walk three miles from Shaw to Oldham every week no matter how the weather is, to come and collect the food here. I have to, I don’t have anything else,” says a middle-aged man in worn-out clothes as he devours his second portion of curry with egg.
He clutches a parcel of donated food – cereal, pasta and tinned goods.
Like many others, the man who asked not to be named makes the weekly pilgrimage to the Oldham Unitarian Church every Monday morning. The church, in partnership with the Islamic charitable organisation UK Education and Faith Foundation (UKEFF), runs a weekly “food and support” service.
The service provides free food, clothes and toys as well as legal, welfare and housing assistance, enabling a network of volunteers and support groups to reach out to local people in need of help.
The One World Cafe at the church serves a free meal to around 70 people every Monday, while the food parcels help to sustain them throughout the week.
The most deprived town in England
Oldham, a town in the north-west of England, came to prominence during Britain’s industrial era, becoming, at one point, the cotton-spinning capital of the world.
During the 1950s and 1960s, migrants from Pakistan and Bangladesh arrived – destined for the mills and factories, where they were often employed for lower wages than the locals.
But the country’s industrial decline during the 1960s and 1970s was sorely felt here and when most of the mills shut down, few job opportunities were left for the town’s indigenous or migrant population.
Oldham, which a study by the Office for National Statistics recently found to be the most deprived town in England, still hasn’t been able to rejuvenate its economy and many of its residents live in poverty.
Feeding ‘the needy and destitute’
Forty-four-year-old Nasim Ashraf works at a local technology and online development company. He started UKEFF in 2009 to address “the concerns and issues in society but from an Islamic ethos”.
Inspired by his understanding of Islam, he says he wanted to “help and feed the needy and destitute”.
So, with his wife Hafizan, he started collecting food donations to distribute to local people from their family home – a modern but modest detached house on the outskirts of Oldham.
“It was a very simple choice for me to work with people in Oldham because I live here,” he says.
“It is my and our collective responsibility to look after our locality. I would see people in our town and think ‘this person is destitute, this person is hungry and this person hasn’t got anything to eat. They may have children to feed and are struggling to cope.’ This is where I wanted to lend my support.”
He started looking into the support that was already being offered to Oldham’s impoverished and noticed that people were often being turned away from food banks because they didn’t have a referral that entitled them to food donations. Such referrals come in the form of “food vouchers” from registered organisations, such as the social services, medical professionals, schools or even religious leaders.
It troubled him that these organisations were getting to decide whether somebody qualified for emergency food parcels.
Nasim says he “understands that these organisations have to follow certain remits to prevent the flood gates from opening”, but he wanted his organisation to be more open.
“I just couldn’t bear it, so we knew we had to set up another food bank – somewhere that would be completely open to all of these cases. You don’t have to be referred, you don’t have to be means-tested or prove to anybody that you are worthy of some aid. It already takes a lot in order to use a food bank – you have to kill off your pride – so we will take anybody on.”
‘We are not ‘you and us’ we are just ‘us”
The Rev Bob Pounder is the Oldham Unitarian Church’s leader and minister. A staunch trade unionist and workers’ rights activist, he used to be the secretary of the Greater Manchester Fire Brigades Union and once went to Iraq while the country was enduring international sanctions to show solidarity with Iraqi workers.
With his sleeves rolled up, he stacks cans of food with UKEFF volunteers and explains: “Nasim and Hafizan’s project is exactly what we wanted to do with the church. The two parties may be from different religions but we are at one with our goals and we feel this cross-culture unity is showing how it should be done.”
At first, Nasim had tried to establish the food bank within the Asian community.
“Naturally I first approached the mosques,” he explains. “There were 36 mosques in the area at the time and I went to quite a lot of them to set this up. [I] spoke to the leaders and none of them were interested. Many of them said they would have to take it to the committees but it’s probably [a] no, because a mosque is a mosque; it’s a blessed place of worship and needs to be kept clean and we don’t want people traipsing in and out.
“I think they had this vision of a constant stream of alcoholics and drug addicts coming to the mosque and this is because I stated my views on an open-door policy.”
But Bob encouraged him to use the church, a 1970s-built building beside the busy ring road.
Now UKEFF’s open-door policy is on full view in the brightly lit, well-organised part of the church that serves as a cafe. White, Asian and black users sit together. There are locals and refugees, old people and young, homeless people and substance abusers, Muslims and Christians all eating together.
It’s a far cry from the images of Oldham that emerged 15 years ago when, during a weekend at the end of May, 2001, racial conflict rocked the town.
After increasingly frequent demonstrations by far-right groups and tit-for-tat incidents between different communities, street battles broke out. Hundreds were arrested and 82 police officers and 22 passers-by were injured as bricks and Molotov cocktails were hurled in what became known as the Oldham Riots.
Bob, Nasim and Hafizan believe these racial tensions have been consigned to the past and have made it part of their mission to promote a message of unity in the town.
“When you look at the arrest lists after the riots, most of those who were involved in stirring up the trouble were from out of town and using Oldham to push their own political agenda,” says Bob. “Our mission is to show that another world is possible and that underneath it all, everybody just wants change in the town, but that this is only possible when everyone cares about those with least in society.”
Nasim believes high rates of unemployment fuelled the trouble. “I think when people have a lot of time on their hands due to unemployment they are going to look for someone to blame, which causes divisions and fighting. I think that’s what caused the riots. People were bored and frustrated and the frustration has to be geared towards something,” he says.
But he feels there still needs to be greater integration between the different communities in the town.
“Being British-Asian/Muslim, I feel there is still a classification of ‘them and us’. We are third or fourth-generation immigrants and we need to start telling people, ‘Come on now, we are good guys, we are British, just as British as you are’,” he says.
“We love a bag of chips on a Friday night and when we go to hot places like Pakistan we get sunburnt just like you guys. We are not ‘you and us’ we are just ‘us’. We are one humanity. It does not matter what religion you follow.”
‘There is no judgement here’
Hasan is from Bangladesh. He arrived in the UK three years ago and, as an asylum seeker, isn’t allowed to work. He has been using the service for nearly two months and says the food parcel “is a massive help for getting through the week”. Still, his family cannot afford to use electricity or heat their home and he says he struggles to feed them.
The cafe offers more than just food for him. It’s an opportunity to socialise. “Loneliness is one of my main problems in this town,” Hasan says.
Johnny is an Oldham local and, as a heavy drug user, is one of the service’s more vulnerable attendees. “UKEFF is one of the only places I can feel secure and relaxed and forget about the stress of my life,” he says. “They are such giving people and I appreciate their help every week.”
After collecting his own parcel, Johnny volunteers in the cafe, serving food and tidying plates. “It’s great because you can meet people from all walks of life here and, volunteer or not, everybody is treated and talked to at the same level,” he says. “There is no judgement here.”