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Hours before iftar, volunteers are already hard at work in the atrium at HeartBeat Bedok.
Some set up tables with drinks while others pack goodie bags. When attendees start arriving, they usher them in with a smile.
Families settle down into the communal space, chattering as children frolic, filling up the tables as they wait for the evening break fast.
Before 7pm, the food arrives and corporate and community volunteers work together to distribute meals to the beneficiaries.
Non-profits and corporations working hand-in-hand: This is Nazath Faheema’s vision.
“I think faith-based welfare organisations should work with the private sector; corporates have a lot of resources while religious groups have a lot of followers. Such a combination helps charities amplify their reach at a much faster, much larger scale,” Faheema tells The Pride.
Nazhath Faheema, 38, is the Director of Development & Community Relations at interfaith charity Hope Initiative Alliance (HIA). She is also the team lead for Sowing Care Together, an interfaith youth initiative set up by HIA.
Breaking fast together
On Apr 5, HIA organised a Ramadan iftar open to people of all religions and ethnicities.
Explains Faheema: “The iftar is open to all religions because it seeks to promote the sharing of a moment which is significant for Muslims. It creates the opportunity for non-Muslims to interact with Muslims and find out more about their religious beliefs, traditions and practices in an experiential way.”
Even the volunteers got into the spirit of the event.
“We also fasted for the day; we ate at 5am,” says Priya Meyalagan, a corporate volunteer in her 30s from accounting firm PwC. “All of us are hungry and tired but we want to immerse ourselves in the experience and break fast with the beneficiaries.”
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Alongside corporate volunteers are youths like Francis Lim and Shawn Chua, both 21. Francis, a full-time national serviceman, took leave that day to volunteer.
“There is something deeply fulfilling about helping others in need… volunteering gives me a sense of purpose and connection to my community,” says Francis.
His friend, Shawn, a polytechnic student, also decided to volunteer to spend his term break meaningfully.
Youths key to inter-racial and religious harmony
Faheema says she is heartened to see youths like Shawn and Francis give back to the community. They are key to mobilising change within society, she says.
“I’ve met young people around the world who live in cities where co-existence is hard, and I think we (as a multi-religious society) need to maintain what we have here.”
“I see youths using social media to show that living harmoniously is possible. Take the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement for example, if young people can have such a reach for good, we should learn from them,” Faheema says.
In 2020, after the death of George Floyd, an African-American man, at the hands of the police, the BLM movement went global (it actually started in 2013), amplified by Gen Zs and millennials through social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram.
“It is important that people of different backgrounds support each other because that is one of the principles of most, if not all religions,” says student Arshi Das, 16.
Arshi is with her dad, Sachin, who met Faheema when she spoke at her international school’s international day of peace programme.
“I’m a Christian, but I feel it is wonderful to celebrate Ramadan with my Muslim friends,” says Sachin, 48.
Celebrating Ramadan as a community
Before iftar, Senior Minister of State for National Development Tan Kiat How and several religious leaders spoke on inter-religious harmony. And at 7:12pm, beneficiaries start tucking in, some reciting their prayers first before friendly conversations ensue.
Some come with neighbours while smaller families share tables with others they meet for the first time.
Faheema estimates there are about 350 beneficiaries divided into over a hundred families from around the Bedok area.
“It’s a time for bonding,” says Krishnavani Theresa, 47, a single mum of two boys aged 7 and 9.
“This is the first time I’m breaking fast with my Muslim friends and I know some of them; we live in the same block and sometimes we join these events together,” says Theresa, who is a Catholic.
Like Theresa, many of the beneficiaries were invited by their social service workers or engagement officers, who keep them informed of such events.
“Thank you so much for inviting me and my sons,” Khatijah Jaumaat, 52, tells her engagement officer, Bing Ng, at one table.
At another table, a young Filipino family of seven eat their dinner with two Malay brothers in their 70s.
Victoria, 36, rocks her baby while chatting with the brothers. It’s the first time they’ve met but she says she’s glad to have bonded with them and experience a different culture.
One of the brothers, Muhammad Junaidin, in his 70s, says he rarely gets such opportunities because of his health.
“…my kidney, stomach, intestines and my heart, I sometimes get pain. Like when I was eating just now, I quickly took my medication because I was sweating in pain,” Junaidin tells me matter-of-factly.
Just last month, Junaidin had an endoscopy. He has been in and out of hospital, but doctors have not been able to diagnose his condition. He says his next check-up is only in June but he remains positive, waving my concern off with a smile.
Leaving with grateful hearts
As the sun sets, the crowd ebbs. The volunteers, however, remain to clean up (and snap a few photos).
“It was a good interfaith gathering. I think the beneficiaries are very happy; the children got toys and we try to engage them as well,” says Jennifer Goh, co-founder of Blossom World Society, one of the participating youth non-profit groups.
Faheema says the event went better than expected.
“(It was great) how our volunteers interacted with the families and served them with care. It was also good to see corporate and social volunteers working together in an interfaith effort,” she says.
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For corporations to work with non-profits, Faheema says that there must be a meeting of mutual interests. To do that, dialogue is critical.
“Beyond volunteering to serve the community, this is also a way for corporations to educate their employees about the diverse religious traditions in Singapore. This helps non-profit organisations like HIA in our mission to promote interfaith and interracial understanding.”
Tomorrow (Apr 18), HIA is organising another interfaith community iftar from 6 to 8pm at Ramakrishna Mission on Bartley Road.