Hunger No More

A Singapore-based charity run by former businessman Nizar Shariff aspires to feed the poor around the world.

 

BY Low Shi Ping
PHOTO Berita Harian & The Straits Times/SPH

T

he Red Cross of Food. This is what Nizar Shariff envisions his charity Free Food For All (FFFA) to be. Launched in 2014, it started by distributing halal food to the underprivileged through mosques across Singapore. The 49-year-old’s motivation is simple: to eradicate hunger among Singaporeans, especially given how much food waste there is in the country.

“I wanted to do community work and use the money I made from running my shipping business to make people happy,” says Shariff, who was nominated for Singaporean of the Year – an annual award given out by national broadsheet The Straits Times – in 2018.

BEYOND LOCAL BORDERS
In its initial four years, FFFA’s activities, which included fundraising from the public, were limited to Singapore. At the start of 2018, however, Shariff decided to extend its reach overseas after he noticed a spike in news coverage on the enduring Rohingya refugee crisis in Myanmar.

Despite being wheelchair bound, Nizar Shariff continues to oversee the operations of Free Food For All remotely and even extends aid to overseas charity missions.

His first contribution was to donate money to build water pumps for the displaced Rohingya refugees staying in Cox’s Bazar, a tourist town in Bangladesh now recognised as the world’s largest refugee settlement, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Thanks to the networks established through his shipping business, he could construct the pumps for $295 each, while others were charging up to $450. “I wanted to make it affordable for people to do good,” he explains.

True to its name, FFFA’s activities segued into food, basic necessities and even shelter for the refugees – the latter of which became possible in partnership with Human Relief Foundation Kitchen, an international non-governmental organisation (NGO) that enables communities to mitigate the effects of disaster and displacement crises by providing recovery assistance.

In that same year, FFFA also distributed food to survivors of the deadly Lombok and Sulawesi earthquakes in Indonesia, dishing out 200 meals a day for six weeks.

The non-profit distributes its contact details to communities with the aim of spreading the word among those who need help.

Besides partnering local NGOs with a strong presence in different territories, his organisation also receives donations from individuals and companies, which are then channelled towards various philanthropic initiatives. A series of serendipitous connections, such as one forged with Norma Hashim, the treasurer of a Malaysiabased Palestinian organisation, led to the opportunity for meaningful collaborations in the Middle East.

“Norma introduced me to a Turkey-based not-for-profit outfit, Gazze Destek Dernegi (GDD), which works in Palestine,” he reveals. To comply with guidelines governing the use of funds of registered charities in Singapore while continuing humanitarian work outside his home country, he started a new brand, Food for Change (FFC), that would front international projects.

Together with GDD, FFC donates approximately 100 food hampers a month to the people of the Gaza Strip in Palestine. These contain daily necessities such as rice, flour and cooking oil. It also funded the building of 60 units of 500-litre tanks to supply clean water for free every two weeks, for a one-year period. So successful were its activities in Palestine that NGOs working in the region have approached him to work together in countries such as Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Ghana.

LEARNING POINTS
While Shariff is excited by the positive outcome, he acknowledges that his mission to do good has led to an unexpected challenge. “I am overwhelmed by requests from overseas,” he shares, adding that he has had to turn down pleas for help.

He has also established his own stringent vetting process for the NGOs he wants to work with – all applicant organisations must answer a detailed questionnaire covering their impact, presence, focus and cost.

For instance, he is often surprised at how hard the Palestinians strive to bring some semblance of normalcy into their lives even as they grapple with relentless conflict on their land. And with growing strife in other parts of the Middle East, such as Yemen, he continues to come across more internally displaced people who are in urgent need of humanitarian aid.

Part of the challenge arises from the fact that he is wheelchair bound and unable to travel due to his diabetic neuropathy condition. As such, he relies heavily on local NGOs in each country to carry out the physical work. Still, the businessman is unfazed by his handicap. For instance, part of the funds he raises goes towards producing videos of FFC’s food distribution activities and beneficiaries. He uses these to better understand the situation on the ground without having to travel, while also reviewing operations and sharing them with donors for accountability.

These videos have given him keen insights into the lives of those he seeks to help.

“ Why should people die of hunger when there is so much food waste? ”

Nizar Shariff, founder, Free Food For All

“It is terrible. There was a 40-year-old lady who looked about 70. She was crying and thanking us for the rice. They are so deprived that they would boil leaves and press them together to make a cake, then cut it and eat it like a pizza,” he recounts.

“Why should people die of hunger when there is so much food waste?” KINDNESS HAS NO RELIGION Fortunately for Shariff, he has a strong base of donors back home supporting both his work in FFFA and FFC. In fact, his biggest donor comes from a group he least expected: the Jewish community.

“ WITH GROWING STRIFE IN OTHER PARTS OF THE MIDDLE EAST, SUCH AS YEMEN, HE CONTINUES TO COME ACROSS MORE INTERNALLY DISPLACED PEOPLE WHO ARE IN URGENT NEED OF HUMANITARIAN AID. ”

Introduced by a mutual friend, he met Allan (not his real name) in December 2016. In addition to contributing money, the latter has opened Shariff’s eyes to the Jewish culture and religion of Judaism. “Before meeting Allan, my views on the Jewish community were mostly informed by what I see on TV or read in the news about the Arab-Israeli conflict. After meeting him, I now believe that there are nice people everywhere, regardless of race or religion. He is kind and generous with his advice on how to run the charity.

“He introduced me to Rabbi Mordechai Abergel, the chief rabbi of Singapore, who compelled me to visit the Maghain Aboth Synagogue here. I’ve learnt things like how they cannot mix meat and milk together because it is not kosher.”

Free Food For All provides basic food items to the underprivileged and elderly in various parts of Singapore.

To illustrate the extent of Allan’s generosity, Shariff shares how his donor had played a part in FFFA’s plan to give out 5,400 free meals to the needy to mark Singapore’s 54th National Day last August. “The event was estimated to cost $22,000, but Allan quickly stepped in to contribute $10,000 towards it.”

Shariff is also glad that FFFA has no shortage of domestic volunteers either. One of them is Rima, a homemaker and volunteer.

She started off as a beneficiary herself and eventually became a volunteer. “I learnt about the organisation through my neighbour during Deepavali in 2018,” says the 45-year-old, who is part of an informal network of single mothers that seeks donors for basic necessities.

Rima connected with Shariff in the hope that he would carry out a food distribution event in her neighbourhood of Yishun. “After he knew about what I was doing for the single mums and old folks, he agreed.”

Since then, FFFA visits Yishun in northern Singapore twice a month and Rima volunteers with the initiative. In the process, she has learnt the importance of giving rather than taking – that Singaporeans of different age groups have varying needs.

With the help of volunteers, the non-profit does door-to-door delivery of important provisions to old and handicapped people who live alone.

“Those who are in their 60s and older need food, affection, someone to talk to them and connect them with the world. Many of them are alone, often in rental flats, and some are handicapped,” she shares. “The children, on the other hand, need comfort. They want to be given treats like chocolate milk and snacks.”

Indeed, there is much to be positive about. Since the story of FFFA was published on Our Better World – the Singapore International Foundation’s digital storytelling platform – it has been viewed more than 1.2 million times. More than 8,500 members of the public have taken action – by donating, signing up as volunteers or sharing the story to increase awareness about the charity.

As for Shariff, he is more convinced than ever that doing good for the underserved can bring people from vastly different backgrounds and beliefs together. And that, he says, is the foundation of a caring and empathetic society.



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