Interview by Zishaan Mohammed
I sat down (virtually) with Seharish Akhtar and Harram Ashfaq, iCare team volunteers at Aisha Mosque, to learn more about the service the Mosque has set up in response to the Covid-19 lockdown.
“Not long after the lockdown the team set up our phone service where people can call for support with collecting shopping, prescriptions or if people are feeling lonely we can pair them with a volunteer who can check in with them a few times a week.”
Seharish told me that demand for the service was much larger and more complex than any of the volunteers could have imagined. They have been taking referrals from the NHS, care homes, local churches and through their call line.
Relaying the story of one call for assistance – an elderly woman in her 70s who called the line in tears having not eaten in three days – Seharish said: “It was just so sad to hear, living in England, that someone was going hungry in their own home. She had no food, no access to money, and she was too scared to leave the house because of her other health conditions.“
Seharish immediately went out herself, purchased enough food for a week and delivered it the woman’s home. Where she had the opportunity to speak to her from a distance.
“Just seeing the gratitude in her face, to see someone cared enough to leave their home during the pandemic to buy her some bread, milk and other essentials, was all the happiness I needed.
“By the time this call came through the service had been running for a few weeks, but for a lot of us it wasn’t until we helped this individual that the importance and value of our work sunk in.”
Harram agreed adding: “It’s helping people like these, the most vulnerable, that inspires us to continue providing our service”.
Some experiences have had a deep impact on the team, Harram recalls receiving one call from someone who had seen a woman selling her children’s toys in a local park in order to feed them: "It really struck the team to know that people were facing such uncertainty and difficulty around something as basic as eating.
“I immediately went shopping and brought four bags of food to this lady’s house. I was able to speak to her and her daughter briefly at her door.
“She was beaming with gratitude and said, ‘oh my God, thank you so much I can’t believe this is all for me.’ Seeing her 5 year old daughter’s beautiful smile on receiving the food was incredibly heart-warming for me.”
It was experiences like this that led to Harram volunteering at weekends alongside her weekday keyworker role.
When asked whether anything had surprised the volunteers, Seharish confessed that they were shocked by the scale of loneliness in Walsall.
The volunteers had assumed their friendly call offer may not receive a single request, but it’s turned out to be one of their more popular services.
Seharish described a call the service received from a woman in her late 50s: “She was in tears and I assumed she needed shopping so I asked her what is it that you need? We can get that for you?
"Crying, she replied: 'I don’t actually need anything, I just wanted to pick up the phone and hear someone’s voice.'”
It became apparent that the woman hadn’t spoken to anyone in three weeks as she lived alone and was self-isolating. Seharish had a friendly phone call with her and noted that: “By the end, the woman’s voice was filled with gratitude just because she was able to hear a friendly voice on the other end and to have the opportunity to talk about whatever was on the TV the night before.”
Calls like these highlighted to Seharish how big a problem loneliness is in Walsall and how much this it is being exasperated by the lockdown. “Others have called just to have a chat, there is a lot of built up emotion and they’re not sure how to deal with it.”
“Another department we have set up in the last week is a bereavement service because there are individuals who are losing loved ones and are unsure of how to grieve or deal with those emotions. Several volunteers have gone on to training for bereavement support, so they can help others better.”
One of the most enjoyable and satisfying elements of the service for Seharish has been meeting and helping non-Muslim members of the community: “Volunteers have been able to build strong relationships with regular users, most of whom come from non-Muslim backgrounds.
“Being able to speak to people over the phone and get to know their stories is one of the most beautiful aspects of the service.”
One group that is receiving support from the service is the congregation of nearby St Gabriel’s Church. When the church fathers heard about the service, they were quick to volunteer to support the service themselves.
Harram explained: “Father Richard and Father Mark have, from the get-go, been very hands on. They wanted to be involved and were happy to volunteer to drop supplies off. Which was incredibly helpful as there is high demand and volunteers have to queue for a long time when shopping.”
"Aisha Mosque regularly carries out interfaith work and has open days, but supporting the wider community with our new service has shown us that many people in the area don’t know much about the Mosque or the services that we provide.
“A lot of the people we deliver to are not the regulars who turn up at interfaith events and getting to interact with them through our deliveries has really opened up a new perspective on the Mosque for them”.
Continued service and call for action
The frequency of calls for support and the positive impact they have had on others has inspired Aisha Mosque to continue the service after the lockdown.
Harram explained: “One thing we have learnt is that there are many people within our communities who do not have the means to help themselves in this crisis and beyond.
“Understanding this and seeing first-hand the impact our actions can have on the lives of others, we intend to continue our service when this pandemic is over.
“Please spread details of our service to everyone you know so we can reach people who are potentially suffering without knowing support is out there.”
Seharish added: “Loneliness, fear, grief - these things are not going to go away when the lockdown is lifted. So we will be carrying on our service in some form after the lockdown is lifted.
“If we can help just one person to sleep a little bit better at night knowing that they have eaten, that they are safe and that they have people out there who care for them, we will be happy."
If you need support, you can call the iCare team at Aisha Mosque on 01922 620982 (option 5) to speak with one of their friendly volunteers.