Meet the British Afghans fighting hunger in London
Thirty-seven-year-old Fardin Mohammed, a minicab driver who had first come to the UK as an Afghan refugee in 1999, is distributing free boxes of warm Biryani, a traditional mixed rice dish with its origins found among Muslims of the Indian subcontinent.
"I give food to anyone. Some people stand a few metres away and hesitate. I know they work full-time. But I know they face food insecurity," he tells The New Arab.
Feed The Needy (FTN), the project he runs with support from the Muslim charity Noble Connection, is perched on Pentonville road, east of Euston Road, in the heart of the British capital.
House prices here stand well above £1 million ($1.3m), but not all is what it seems.
Hunger in the capital
Food insecurity refers to both the reduction of a person's food intake and a disruption of a person's eating patterns because of a lack of money and other resources for obtaining food, according to a 2019 Greater London Assembly (GLA) report.
The report identifies the City & East London constituency, a short walking distance away from Fardin's stall, as the area with the lowest levels of food security in London.
Low food insecurity, according to the GLA, encompasses various types.
The rise of foodbank usage in Britain has recently been widely reported in British media.
Running out of money to buy food, reducing meal sizes or skipping meals altogether, or being unable to afford balanced meals are the other facets of a daily reality for over one in five adults in London, equivalent to a staggering 1.5 million.
A more shocking finding, however, is that 60 percent of that figure are individuals who are working full-time or part-time.
|I give food to anyone. Some people stand three metres away and hesitate. I know they face food insecurity
- Fardin Mohammed, Feed the Needy
The charity that oversees Fardin's project, Noble Connection (NC), was established in 2015 by a group of young students and professionals from the UK's Afghan community.
Noble Connection launched FTN in December 2016. It was the brainchild of Dr Suleyman Sakha, a dental surgeon of Afghan Uzbek origin who serves as the charity's president.
The charity says it seeks to achieve two objectives with its work. Advancing the Islamic faith for the benefit for of the public, and relieving poverty in the UK through aid for those in need, according to its website.
Citing a saying by Prophet Muhammad, Noble Connection believes the two goals are linked.
"Feed others (who are less fortunate)….and you will enter paradise in a state of bliss," Prophet Muhammad has once told Muslims, according to one tradition.
Feed The Needy
FTN, the project which currently consists of the semi-permanent stall outside King's Cross station, used to source food from charities like City Harvest London, which collects surplus food from all segments of the food industry.
They would provide the initiative with light snacks, such as supermarket sandwiches, fruits and canned drinks.
As Noble Connection's outreach projects diversified, Dr Sakha passed on the baton to Fardin, who wanted to do things differently.
|The City and East London constituency, a short walking distance away from Fardin's stall, is the area with highest levels of low food security in London|
Speaking to The New Arab, Fardin recalls first trying his luck at restaurants in West London, to see if they would donate meal boxes to the initiative.
Chaudhry's TKC, a flagship Indo-Chinese mainstay in London's Southall, came on board, handing Fardin samosas as well as takeaway boxes of rice and curry every week.
Even then, however, the project was falling short.
"Of course, most restaurants don't want to give away free food. Relying only on donations was not going to be a long-term solution," said Fardin.
Fardin's famous Biryani
Fardin's decided to take a new approach, which was to cook the food himself from scratch.
He begins his Saturday with an early morning trip to the Felix Project, a charity similar to City Harvest, where he sources staple ingredients, before picking anything else at a local supermarket.
|Feed others (who are less fortunate)….and you will enter paradise in a state of bliss
- Prophet Muhammad
At 10 am Fardin starts preparing his signature dish.
"Skinless chicken thighs are the healthiest to use, and they're tasty," he says. "I tend to use my own spice mix rather than the pre-packed ones."
"For the gravy base I like a combination of tinned and fresh tomatoes."
While the impact FTN has in tackling London's every-growing food insecurity problem is limited, it may serve another powerful function.
Statistics continue to suggest that the British public sees Muslims differently from other religious groups, with 18 percent holding extremely negative views of Muslims, according to research carried out by anti-fascist group Hope Not Hate.
Islamophobia has even been normalised by some of the country's political figures, including Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has refused to apologise for making a number of derogatory comments about Muslim women.
The day after the 2019 London bridge knife attacks, Fardin recalls the stony expression of a middle-aged man who visited his stall in Kings Cross.
As the two exchanged glances, Fardin was asked which religious group he belonged to.
On answering, he was thrown a follow-up:
"How is that one Muslim goes around stabbing people and another one offers free food?"
Fardin said that what happened the day before was nothing to do with Islam because the perpetrator had served himself.
Giving free food, Fardin explained, was an act of service to others.
"Take a box. I'm not stabbing anyone, and my food has no poison," Fardin joked.
The man laughed, before withdrawing a £10 note from his wallet and placing it into the charity's collection box.
Kamal Afzali is a journalist at The New Arab
Follow him on Twitter at @KNIAfzali