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     Volume 4 Issue 32 | February 4, 2005 |

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Food for Thought

Never A Dull Moment…
musings From the Shop Floor

(part 1)

Farah Ghuznavi

The heavy chill in the morning air was the harbinger of winter. I hurried to the shop, grateful for the meagre warmth of the takeaway coffee cup I cradled in my hands. The bell above the door chimed as I entered, making Sulei look up from his position at the till. He gave me a cheerful grin, eyes twinkling, "Always in a hurry to get going, hey, Farah?" he teased. "Just be grateful for it!" I retorted sharply (perhaps as an unfair payback for years of being scapegoated for punctuality in a generally unpunctual world - not least in my homeland, where Bangladesh Standard Time operates!).

Sulei (short for Suleiman) was a bit of a character. He had moved to the UK from Turkey, over 20 years ago. Obviously a Muslim by birth, he didn't seem particularly devout (at least not enough to fast during Ramadan). His considerable energy and good humour made him an excellent manager for the charity shop. I sometimes felt that he ran the small army of volunteers (30 individuals over a series of shifts) almost as a kind of miniature social experiment - not that strange, given the considerable diversity of backgrounds among the volunteers. His methods combined coaxing, encouragement and the occasional spot of bullying, and generally yielded positive results (something his ready smile probably contributed to as well).

It was hard to know what led people to volunteer. Sometimes the motive was fairly evident, a desire to contribute some free time to a good cause. At other times it was less obvious. Some of the volunteers spoke very basic English, others were new immigrants, filling in time between job searches. As I grew more familiar with how the shop operated, it became increasingly clear to me that for many, this was an opportunity to not only better their English, but also improve their social skills and learn how to operate in "mainstream" British society. It was also evident that Sulei took his role as guide and mentor quite seriously, not hesitating to provide praise or corrective feedback to his flock. Although he could be brusque at times, his good intentions were not in question, and the new arrivals could certainly do a lot worse in terms of their initiation into a foreign culture. I sometimes wondered if they reminded him of himself, when he first came to this country.

They were a mixed bunch. There was Ramani, from South India, whose husband had been posted in the UK for the next four years, by the bank he worked for. She was a full-time mother, and had, like most South Asian parents, great educational aspirations for her only child, who was planning to be a doctor. Ramani assured us that this was a reflection of her daughter's own wishes, rather than parental pressure, but that didn't stop the rest of us from teasing her about the strange coincidence whereby so many South Asian children wanted to be doctors, lawyers and engineers! She was a warm person, and engaging, and I admired her for choosing to go out and be part of something bigger, rather than sitting at home and making endless glasses of brain-boosting Ovaltine for her daughter (which of course, she may have been doing during her hours at home!).

Then there was David. He was Jewish and had grown up in Peru, where his grandparents had moved before the Second World War, sensing the way the wind was blowing in Germany. Because of his familial origins, David had recently applied for, and been granted, a German passport. As an EU passport holder, this was what entitled him to now live in the UK. But he spoke limited English, no German, and of course, fluent Spanish! In fact, in between volunteering at the shop, and looking for jobs, David spent his time writing Spanish poetry…

Farzaneh, who helped out on an occasional basis, was another interesting character. Her parents were Iranian, but she had grown up largely in Britain. Unlike many second-generation immigrants, she remained a devout Muslim, but not intolerant in any way. She and Sulei were having a running battle - albeit a good-humoured one - about his failure to fast during Ramadan. No one could accuse Farzaneh of being a stereotypical "submissive" Muslim woman - she was confident in both her opinions and her faith, and had no hesitation in speaking out on either. She also had a great sense of humour, and even those on the receiving end of her sometimes sarcastic asides, found her likeable.

For anyone wanting to understand how volunteering at the shop or purchasing goods from there contributed to charity, there was a system of labelling which I found very useful. For each item for sale, it was explained what the price (i.e. the contribution) meant to the organisation. The same was true of the hours worked by volunteers, e.g., four hours of voluntary work provided the equivalent of immunisation against six diseases for twelve children, seeds for so many farm families in developing countries to grow food and so on. Somehow, this made both volunteers' and customers' contributions to the cause more tangible to many of us. And on bad days, it reminded us what we were doing there!

(To be continued…)

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