“As-salamu-alaykum sisters, kaiso ho?” greets Elyas Ismail, Chief Operating Officer of the Newham Community Project, as he signals expecting women to move to the front of the queue.
The vacant shop in Forest Gate, east London is brimmed with foodstuffs containing essential groceries: fruit and vegetable, eggs, rice, sugar, and milk along with a selection of biscuits.
The food bank creates packages for international students and overstayers who are among more than 10,0000 individuals living in Newham without access to public funds.
No Recourse to Public Funds
International students and overstayers have NRPF or ‘no recourse to public funds.’ This means they are excluded from claiming benefits and therefore, have no access to social security and housing. By virtue of immigration status alone, these individuals are economically vulnerable and hence their options are scarce. As the NCP rightly notes, food banks like theirs offer a lifeline for those who are “forgotten in a broken system.”
“Tuesdays are one of our busiest days,” co-founder Yasmin Ismail tells me. Volunteers bag up deliveries in preparation for distribution around midday. “Usually, we finish distributing to families around 2.30 and then in the evening we cater to students or individuals,” says Yasmin. “ Around 5.30, volunteers will start bagging for evening distribution at 7.00.”
Since the Newham Community Project’s inception in 2008, husband and wife Elyas and Yasmin, have been committed to beating structural inequalities families face in the borough. With the pandemic, fuel poverty and rising prices hitting these families the hardest, the NCP are determined to go above and beyond to help those struggling.
“In times like this, unfortunately, the vulnerable are most at risk of hardship,” Elyas notes how there sometimes is a double burden for these individuals as international students. “Some families are struggling to support themselves here and back home.”
1600 odd WhatsApp Messages
“There’s no doubt about it, we are one of the most busiest food banks in the country,” Elyas says. The NCP doesn’t just stop at sustenance. With queries regarding housing and employment, Elyas shows me multiple group chats and unread messages numbering in the thousands from the food bank users.
“One of the most common things is the landlord throwing tenants’ belongings out because they can’t pay the rent on time. Unfortunately, as they don’t have access to any kind of support, they can’t go to the council.“
“As they’re left on their own, we also look for accommodation for them, and for some, they don’t have the means for deposits, so we also become a referee or guarantor for them. We’re more than a food bank”
As Elyas has individual chats and keeps up to date with each queuing recipient, It’s evident that community is at the heart of everything they do. The tenacity and grit of volunteers are second to none.
“Volunteers will come back around 5.30 and start bagging up again for the evening distribution, even distribution at 7.00. There have been times where we have been serving at 1.00 in the morning.”
Not all doom and gloom
For many of the students and families, outdoor activities run by the NCP are key to their physical fitness and mental wellbeing
Elyas says, “It’s not all doom and gloom, there’s always fun, we love working with kids.” Formed in 2010, the 7th Newham Scouts are the largest group in the borough with around 120 children taking part in activities from kayaking, abseiling, and expeditions overseas, to photography, climbing and zorbing.
Whilst children learn teamwork and survival skills with scouts, adults regularly meet up at the local park for catch-ups. For a lot of adults, these meet-ups are one of the few times they go out.
Elyas says, “So just imagine staying in one room with the kids. They don’t have much going on or anybody to interact with them. And this is one of the only times that they come out and talk to people.”
He goes on to say as these small acts are important for their mental health. “These catch-ups are everything for these people, it gets them out the house more, they need people to show them time and give them guidance.”
What people should know about food banks
Elyas says, “Generally speaking people know about food banks but they don’t understand why people are using them. A lot of people really can’t grasp, you know, how can people struggle?”
“You might see somebody who looks like they’re okay from the outside but inside as they go through issues so just keep an eye out for your neighbours.”
“If there’s anyone out there who’s struggling, they can always contact us.”