Food and Friend­ship

For Mon­treal’s Sis­ter Sabria, car­ing for her neigh­bours means mov­ing be­yond reli­gion and cul­ture

Reader's Digest (Canada) - - Contents - BY AN­DREA BENNETT PHO­TO­GRAPH BY NEIL MOTA

How Mon­treal’s Sis­ter Sabria cares for her neigh­bours. AN­DREA BENNETT

ON A WARM SUM­MER Mon­day in July, a few weeks af­ter Ra­madan has ended, a diminu­tive 69-year-old woman dressed in yel­low flo­rals and a pur­ple plaid apron stands in front of two gi­ant soup pots. “Brother Kalil,” she says, wield­ing a mas­sive wooden spoon, “it’s time to add the milk!”

Sabariah Binti Hus­sein, known by most as Sis­ter Sabria, hums with en­ergy. To­day she and a group of eight vol­un­teers have gath­ered on the top floor of a res­i­den­tial build­ing in Mon­treal’s Notre-Dame-deGrâce neigh­bour­hood to pre­pare corn soup, baked pota­toes and phyllo pas­try stuffed with ground beef to take to the nearby River’s Edge Church com­mu­nity kitchen.

By 3 p.m. things are in full swing. Kalil Sack­obah, 26, is help­ing Hus­sein make the soup in the apart­ment where she lives with her hus­band. The space, warm and invit­ing, is filled with plants and aquar­i­ums that house comet gold­fish and African ci­ch­lids and bub­ble away in tan­dem with the pots on the stove. Down the hall, in two apart­ments that pro­vide shel­ter for com­mu­nity mem­bers in need, other vol­un­teers work on the bal­ance of the din­ner.

Grow­ing up in Malaysia, Sabariah Binti Hus­sein de­liv­ered food to vil­lagers in need. Years later and half a world away, that call­ing re­mains.

Hus­sein pre­pares meals for River’s Edge ev­ery Mon­day, some­thing she’s been do­ing for sev­eral years. On Tues­days and Wed­nes­days she vis­its sick friends in the hos­pi­tal and helps fam­i­lies at loose ends. On Thurs­days she cooks food to sell at mosques on Fri­days. The money she makes, along with com­mu­nity do­na­tions, al­lows her to fund her shel­ter and feed the com­mu­nity. While she’s just emerged from her busy pe­riod—she spends the month of Ra­madan cook­ing food to sup­ply for if­tar, the post-sun­set meal that breaks the fast—she doesn’t seem to have slowed down much.

“In Is­lam,” she ex­plains, “there is a Ha­dith that says be­fore you sleep, check if your neigh­bour is hun­gry. For me, the church peo­ple, the sur­round­ing area, they are my neigh­bours. So I check whether they are hun­gry.”

When she ar­rived in Mon­treal from Malaysia over 30 years ago, she says, the city’s plu­ral­ism re­minded her of her home coun­try—peo­ple of all dif­fer­ent racial, re­li­gious and eth­nic back­grounds liv­ing side by side.

Once the soup is sim­mer­ing away, Sack­obah takes his cam­era out of his back­pack and be­gins to snap pho­tos. Hus­sein’s long-term goal is to open a home for or­phans of the Ro­hingya peo­ple, a Mus­lim mi­nor­ity group flee­ing per­se­cu­tion in Myan­mar. She is pre­par­ing to speak at a fundrais­ing din­ner in Ot­tawa, held by the Mus­lim char­ity Hu­man Con­cern In­ter­na­tional, to raise money for the project. A pre­vi­ous fundraiser net­ted $16,000, leav­ing her with $134,000 left to col­lect. Sack­obah’s pho­tos will help bring at­ten­tion to the cause.

The aquar­i­ums through­out Hus­sein’s apart­ment re­mind her of grow­ing up by the ocean. When she needs a break from work, she rests on the couch next to her gold­fish. “I just lay down here and take a lit­tle nap,” she says. “It’s very re­lax­ing.”

But there’s no time for a breather to­day: as soon as the food is ready, Shiao-Lan Pan ar­rives from the church to help haul it to the com­mu­nity kitchen. Pan, who has known Hus­sein for more than five years, says she once asked her what it meant to be Mus­lim and serve food at a Christian church. “Sis­ter Sabria said, ‘You’re my brother, you’re my sis­ter,’” Pan says. “Her gen­eros­ity, and what she be­lieves, tran­scend the bound­aries of reli­gion and cul­ture.”

Bob L., who at­tends din­ners at the church, agrees. “She’s got a heart like a saint,” he says.

At River’s Edge, about 70 peo­ple are wait­ing for their din­ner. Hus­sein and her crew hop into ac­tion, join­ing church vol­un­teers and kitchen co­or­di­na­tors Rob and Heather Aitken to pre­pare plates.

“Sis­ter Sabria’s a great cook,” Heather says. “Peo­ple en­joy her food.”

“She’s a bless­ing,” Rob adds.

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