Source: i News
On the day of the Grenfell Tower disaster in London, a group of Muslim men from Birmingham traveled down to the capital to donate around £6,000 worth of food and baby supplies to help those who had lost everything. Their kindness was picked up by the media who wanted a name for the group. They scratched their beards and came up with “Bearded Broz”. Imran Hameed was behind the delegation sent to London. Unable to travel himself after seeing the appalling footage of the burning block of flats, he put a call out on social media, offering his van and supplies from the West Midlands-based Salma Food Bank he set up in 2016. “These brothers came along. They all had beards, so the name was Bearded Broz,” he says. “We had something in common, we wanted to help.
Don’t need a beard to be a Bro
Since that fateful day in June 2017, the Bearded Broz – founded by Hameed and Naveed Sadiq – has grown into a Muslim community group, merging with the food bank, which its volunteers now help to run. You don’t have to be a Muslim, a man or even have facial hair to be a Bro, you just have to want to help your community thrive and donate your time. Alongside working at the food bank, the Bearded Broz volunteers carry out house-to-house visits, park clean ups and teach community values to schoolchildren. The group’s work has not gone unnoticed, in early February the Bearded Broz won the outstanding achievement accolade at the British Muslim Awards. Sitting behind his desk at the Bearded Broz headquarters in Smethwick, West Midlands, Hameed, points to the glass award proudly. But he hasn’t always been aware of vulnerable people in the wider community. For the majority of his life, the businessman and IT consultant did not realise poverty was rife on his doorstep. “I was born with a [silver] spoon in my mouth,” the 38-year-old says frankly. “I didn’t know what poverty was. I didn’t know what a food bank was.” He was shocked when he realised the reality for thousands people. Not only did they have to use food banks, they would have to be formally referred, wait days for them to open and then possibly travel miles to pick up their supplies.
Helped 11,000 people
This is why he set up what he claims is the UK’s only emergency food bank with a 24-hour helpline people can ring or text. Hameed or a fellow “Bro” will answer calls at any time and deliver the food parcel to their doorstep the same day. To date they have helped around 11,000 people with many referrals coming from the police, social services and other local agencies. On Monday lunchtime, 63-year-old Elizabeth Parker rings the Bearded Broz. She hasn’t eaten since the day before when her daughter cooked her a meal and doesn’t know where her next one will come from. Her cupboards are bare bar a few cans. Taking her call at the makeshift call centre at the headquarters is “one of the broz,” Jodie Rees. She knows only too well what people like Parker are going through. When Rees, 30, was diagnosed with depression and her husband was made redundant, they ended up living on the streets. They were put up in a homeless hostel but encountered problems with their benefit payments. They found Hameed and the emergency food bank on Facebook. Rees was one of the first recipients of the service in 2016. “We couldn’t afford to eat. We had food for about a week and then that was it,” she says, adding that they were jumping for joy when their case was approved. Rees has been volunteering with the Bearded Broz for nearly three months. The kindness she was shown has had a profound effect on her. “Before I would never have volunteered. I was always out for the money, out for myself, but now I volunteer five days a week.”
More calls because of Universal Credit
Some days are busier than others, with up to 14 people calling for help, says Rees. The number of calls has increased since the roll out of the controversial benefits system, Universal Credit. Recently, the Broz had to pull together to carry out 50 drop-offs in one day. Rees and Hameed carry out an assessment on Parker’s case and agree she qualifies for a delivery. When Rees delivers the good news, the severity of Parker’s situation becomes clear: she asks whether the Bearded Broz can top up her gas and electricity card. The thought of Parker having no heating as well as no food on what is a dreadfully cold day is heartbreaking. Hameed gives an approving nod. He does not usually do this, but weighing up her case and age, he will pay for the top up out of his own pocket. When asked why, he says simply: “If that was my mum, what would I do?” This is a prime example of why Hameed is strongly against making the Bearded Broz a charity. There is too much “red tape” dictating what you can and cannot do with charities, he says. “I hate them with a vengeance. It’s despicable what they do. If you want to become rich, become a charity. ‘We use our hearts’ “In this game, we use our heart,” he says. This sometimes means Hameed ends up footing the bill for the work of the Bearded Broz. But that, he says, is his contribution to the community. Most contribute their time such as “star volunteer” Munir Hussain, who delivers between 40 and 50 food parcels a week. The full time carer arrives at the headquarters to pick up more supplies for his trips that week. He is modest when asked about his record: “It does [take up a lot of time] but I quite enjoy it, meeting people – I’ve been to places in Birmingham I’ve never been before in my life and I was born here. “When I first joined, I didn’t realise how bad [the poverty] was,” he says.
Some contribute through donations
A volunteer wheels into the food bank stockroom – where the food parcels are kept bagged up and ready to go – a shopping trolley containing three boxes of cereals, tins and pasta. This donor drops off supplies once a month and is one of many regulars. A man in Glasgow has so far donated supplies worth around £1,500. Hameed was inspired to set up the food bank by his mum, who spent time helping people in poor countries, and by his Muslim background. He says one teaching from Islam stuck in his mind: “A Muslim is not a Muslim that goes to bed satisfied while his neighbour sleeps hungry.” While the Bearded Broz has a Muslim ethos, it never discriminates against who it helps and the volunteers are from all different backgrounds. “I’m not trying to make Islam seem like something it isn’t,” says Hameed. “I think I’m just trying to do what Islam [says] was meant to be done in the first place.” ‘Not interested in religious convictions’ He adds: “Whatever your religious convictions are, I’m not interested. Whatever mine are, you shouldn’t be interested. We come together under one umbrella of humanity.” The Bearded Broz now has over 75 volunteers. Away from the food bank, they most recognisably came together during the Birmingham bin strike and started collecting the overflowing rubbish bags and taking them to the tip.
While the majority of people were very grateful and teary eyed, Hameed says he and his team were called “scabs” by a handful of people including the left-wing tabloid Morning Star. “We’re doing it out of the kindness of our hearts. We weren’t scabs.” “It was a just a case of you know what lads, there’s a problem, can we fix it? Yeah we can.” On the drive to deliver the food parcels, Hameed points out the problems affecting the local area – crime, gangs, drugs, prostitution – and how they can be fixed. He believes large institutions have failed in solving community issues and that is why community groups like the Bearded Broz are needed. He talks of forming a “super” community group that works more directly with the police and other agencies to meet the needs of West Midlands. But in the short term, he wants the work of the Bearded Broz to inspire other groups to launch up and down the country. Ninety minutes after Parker’s case was approved, Hameed and Rees pull up outside her house in Handsworth with two bags full of non-perishable goods. She is standing on the doorstep in her nightgown, waiting.
‘I cannot go to work’
Parker has lymphedema, a condition that means she retains fluid in her legs and has to walk with a walking stick. She says she can’t work as a cleaner and her doctor agrees, but the Job Centre want her to do 16 hours a week. She now has to apply for Universal Credit. “I think it’s disgusting really,” says Parker who lives alone. “Something needs to be done about it. I’m not a person to stop at home, but in my situation, me being sick, I cannot go to work.” The food parcel has made her happy and without it, she would have resorted to knocking on her neighbours’ doors. Another recipient on the drop-off journey is a father from West Bromwich, who used to receive disability benefits. His situation is similar to Parker’s – the Job Centre says he is fit enough to work but the doctor disagrees. He is embarrassed to have had to call the Bearded Broz and doesn’t want his family to find out. But as he comes to collect his bags, his gratitude is clear. “I wasn’t fussed about myself – it was just my three-year-old,” he says.
Hameed says setting up Bearded Broz has been a “humbling” experience for him and his family. “We come from a very affluent background. My children have grown up on lobster, steak. We were quite oblivious to the fact of our communities needing help. But our children are always talking about helping the food bank, how it feels knowing people are starving out there. “I’m really proud of that. I feel if nothing comes of this, I’ve embedded something in my kids which they will look back at. They won’t lose that feeling.”