"If you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday." ~ Isaiah 58:10
"For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me. " ~ Matthew 25:35
"The righteous are those who feed the poor, the orphan and the captive saying: ‘we seek from you neither reward nor thanks'.” ~ Quran, 76:8-9
This made me cry today. We live in a time when too many cannot bear to confront in themselves the realities of this thing called life. They refuse to reflect on the true purpose of our own fleeting existence, much less our own inevitable mortality. It's too sad for them. The resolve we can demonstrate that defines a life of purpose, is too difficult for them. Most can't be bothered. They hide behind veneers of false illusions and ascribe unwarranted importance to ungracious consumption, childish games and purile entertainment. Rare is there appreciation for true beauty, thought, love. Rarer still are there examples of personal engagement to bind up the wounds around us. Character, fidelity, caring are too often scorned as weak. A corroding cynicism has pervaded our everyday life and our everyday relationships.
John Le Carre once wrote that, "Today one must think like a hero to behave as a merely decent human being." Well, today I met two heroes who were those decent human beings. Yahya Hashemi came from Iran some thirty years ago. His partner Ali Amiry came from Iraq. Living proof that despite warring motherlands, common humanity can forge lifelong bonds. They prospered, starting several businesses from a foreign exchange, to fruit importing to a restaurant.
The forex and the restaurant are side by side on St.Catherine St. As day turns to late afternoon and night - and the sunlight dims - the bustling students from nearby Concordia are replaced with a sadder and more vulnerable crowd. Many poor, some homeless, all sad and alone. It's a gritty part of the street at certain hours.
Begging is common. From the start, many would come into Yahya and Ali's forex and ask for some change. The two partners always made it a point to give everyone who asked a dollar or two. They weren't concerned if some were faking it. As Yahya said to me, with eyes reflecting the pain he has seen, "If someone is reduced to that state, we must have even more compassion." They would then tell them to go get something to eat.
One day one of the homeless came back and told the partners that there was nothing they could buy to eat for a couple of dollars. From that day four years ago, Yahya and Ali would not only give money, but told each person to go to their restaurant next door, it's called Marche Ferdous, and they would be fed for free. When one person asked what they could order, Yahya told him "....anything you want."
Over the past year, Yahya and Ali noticed a considerable increase in poor people on the street. Three months ago they decided to post a sign, in English and French, on the door of the restaurant. It says, "People with no money are welcome to eat free." Underneath was the Farsi word for kebab. I heard about this only this week. I had seen the pictures. But I must admit that when I arrived, tears welled up in my eyes.
This was no big charitable organization with a bloated organization. These were just two human beings of true character willing to get their hands dirty to do good. They saw want and rose to meet it. Simple as that. Revolutionaries of conscience. You don't have to go abroad to be involved in the yearning for redemptive change. It's all around us. We're a city with a third of our households living below the poverty line. One and a half million Quebecers use food banks every month. What these two men are doing is what life must be all about.
Inside all is hustle and bustle. Tunisian born cook Abdul Kader with his colorful cap and black and white kaffiyeh mans the grill serving up Middle Eastern and North African dishes with polished skill and panache. A ready smile for paying customers and poor alike. All are seated together whether at tables or the counter. Yahya said, "We must respect each person. We cannot segregate people. It hurts their soul." It hurts their soul. I thought, why don't we teach that in our schools. It's worth more than all the exams combined. One simple lesson.
When I was there, a regular customer named Richard paid his bill and then turned to Yahya and gave him a twenty dollar bill as a contribution. Richard's eyes were red with tears as were those of his companion Rose. I asked Yahya if this happens often. He said that it happens so often that he and Ali have a special charity box at the counter to put the money into. "So that must cover some expenses for the free meals," I asked. No, Yahya answered,they give that money out to the neediest. I stood there with no words. I thought of all the words I had written and the causes I had championed and the sacrifices made and tears welled up again because it had been so long since I met people like this. But if they are the last ones who exist, then with my last breath in this life I would be ready to say the struggle was worth it.
I went to the box and made a contribution. I then turned to Yahya and Ali. I don't know Farsi, but I left them with the traditional words of departure in Arabic which Yahya spoke as well, holding my right hand over my heart, "Shukran. Qad yakun mubarak." Thank you and may you be blessed. There was nothing more to say.