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Poverty and Isolation at Christmas: Kind Hearts and Brutal Policies

There is always a rumour at this time of year that the average Muslim is somehow offended by Christmas. Proving this wrong – hopefully for once and for all – are Asef and Hamid Faqiri, who own a kebab shop in Birmingham, UK. Like many other café and restaurant owners across the country, the Faqiri brothers are going to cook up a Christmas feast, including turkey and all the trimmings, and offer it for free for homeless people in the city. They are also offering their Christmas lunch to elderly people who are alone.

Asef told the Birmingham Mail, “Unfortunately we don’t have anywhere for them to sit, so all we can do is give them the food to take away but at least it’s a hot meal for them that day.

“I don’t know how many people will turn up, let’s just hope we buy enough to feed them all.”

Homelessness and isolation are not insignificant problems, especially in the winter time. The number of rough sleepers in England has doubled in the last six years and, in the cold and wet, it can be fatally dangerous. The average age of death for a homeless woman is 43, and it’s 46 for a homeless man (compared to a national average of 77) and, all the while, budgets for support services (whether they are homelessness support or mental health support, which is frequently needed by people who are homeless) are being cut.

So the kindness and generosity of people who want to help out is not only welcome, it can be life saving. A hot meal, the gift of a warm pair of gloves, and somewhere safe to stay are the minimum people should expect, but as statutory services fail some people, others have had to step in.

In my city, 3015 shoeboxes have been filled with everything from essentials (hats, tins of food, thermal socks) to treats (chocolate, something to read, some sparkly nail varnish) and distributed to organisations that support homeless and otherwise vulnerable people across the local area. In Manchester, a group of Muslim friends (are you seeing a theme here?) gave gifts out to people on the street. And in Liverpool, a four-year-old girl, Millie Melville, gave food parcels out to homeless people in her area.

It is heart-warming and makes me want to cry happy tears to see people pulling together and taking positive action when the weather is bleak and the shops scream at us about buying more, more, more. The TV ads may provoke some general good will, but the overall atmosphere is one of rabid capitalism and focusing on our ‘nearest and dearest’ above all else. It is encouraging to see so many people who are remembering that there are others, who are cold or isolated or unwell, and who are taking positive action, whether it’s through a donation to a food bank, filling a shoebox, or opening up their family business to offer shelter and hot food to anyone who needs it.

But the tears I want to cry are not exclusively happy ones. I could weep with anger when I see such poverty and isolation in one of the richest countries in the world. Oxfam reports that we are also one of the most unequal countries in the world, and people reaching into their pockets to help others when they can barely afford it themselves is incredibly kind, but it should also be unnecessary. As Tracy Brabin, the MP who took over Jo Cox’s parliamentary seat after she was murdered, said, “Insecure work, ­sanctions, changes to tax credits, the Bedroom Tax and delays in Jobseekers’ Allowance and Housing Benefit have left my community poorer and more stressed than ever before. […] Zero-hour contracts, bogus self-employment and widespread, long-term pay freezes mean people are working harder than they’ve ever had to just to keep their heads above water – and for some they’re not waving but drowning”.

It is with bitterness, therefore, that I see that the royals, helicoptered to one of their numerous palaces because they have a cold, are receiving a 66% increase in funds. The queen has £300 million of her own money in the bank, and the family apparently merits a cost to the tax payer of roughly the same amount each year. The fact that one very privileged family receives so much when others have nowhere to sleep or no heating or no power to cook any food is evidence of how divisive and utterly inhumane the system of wealth is in the UK.

For those having a turkey dinner, I hope it is tasty and you are surrounded by gentle people. For those who need help, I hope you can find it and it treats you well. And for those having their dinner served by butlers and an array of servants in a palace, I don’t know how you can sleep at night.

For people on their own on Christmas day, comedian Sarah Millican introduced the hashtag #joinin to be used on social media to bring people together.

Photo: Howard Lake/Flickr


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Philippa Willitts

Philippa Willitts is a British freelance writer who specialises in writing about disability, women's issues, social media and tech. She also enjoys covering politics and LGBT-related topics. She has written for the Guardian, the Independent, New Statesman, Channel 4 News, Access Magazine, xoJane and many more publications. She can be found on Twitter @PhilippaWrites.