Reigniting our empathy in the face of winter
It’s Jan. 20, 2024.
As the winter gets frostier by the day, I can’t help but think about one of our most vulnerable populations.
Standing outside for 10 minutes waiting for the bus feels like an eternity. Wind strips away any feeling in my gloved hands, but my eyes aren’t focused on my own pain. Across the street, I see a man shivering furiously with a bag in his hand. From what I can tell, he has no winter jacket, but sweaters layered for protection. His face is reddened from the cold, and something tells me he’s been outside for much more than 10 minutes.
The bus comes, and I climb on while embracing its warmth. Within the next hour, I’ll be home, safely tucked away in my room with hot tea and snacks in hand. My home guarantees protection from the biting cold, access to food, clean water, hot showers, and most importantly, safety. As I look back through the bus windows, I can’t help but wonder about what the next hour will bring for the man.
Over 3,100 fellow community members face this uncertainty. 301 people lost their lives as a result in 2023.
For people with homes, it is easy to place the responsibility on the authorities. It’s easy to blame others for houseless people’s situation. It’s easy to get on a bus and forget about the person you left behind who’s freezing in the cold. But, as the sharp wind draws out the feeling in our hands, we cannot let that happen to our hearts. Sometimes, getting personal with the issue to understand its reality is the only way we can embrace empathy.
I had the honour of speaking with fellow community members at Al Rashid Mosque, who, in response to the challenges faced by houseless persons in winter, decided to open a temporary emergency shelter. They are one of many community-driven initiatives striving to provide comfort and hope for individuals facing homelessness.
“We welcome them in, provide food, prep the area for bedtime, set out mats and cots, and provide blankets and pillows,”
Afnan Magdi, a receptionist at Al Rashid
In 2019, Al Rashid opened a winter emergency shelter and gave houseless people a safe place to stay during the cold winter nights. “We welcome them in, provide food, prep the area for bedtime, set out mats and cots, and provide blankets and pillows,” says Afnan Magdi, a receptionist at Al Rashid.
Magdi says that the shelter goes beyond just providing temporary shelter. Instead, it is a source of hope for community members. “It’s not just about providing a place to sleep, but also having a warm attitude when interacting with them,” says Magdi. “When volunteering with the homeless, you see a lot of people from different backgrounds, you get to know them, hear their stories, and it stays with you. I think that’s the hard part.”
Al Rashid’s initiative is volunteer-led. Fellow community members contribute their time to impact themselves and the community.
“Two years ago, when volunteering, I got to know “XY” [name omitted for anonymity ], and listened to their stories, cheered them on [in] their success of finding a place. Sometimes, I still wonder how they’re doing and just hope they’re doing alright,” says Magdi.
“One of the best feelings is hearing back from them and learning they are doing better. Last year, I got a call from them [“FG”, a shelter user who is referred to as FG for anonymity] that they were able to secure a job, an apartment and were grateful to have spent their time with us. That honestly made my day and still does when thinking of it!”
The program manager, Salwa Kadri, encourages people to volunteer and donate.
“Supplies that can be donated directly to Al Rashid include first aid kits with non-stick pads, Polysporin, coffee, tea, hot chocolate, oatmeal, paper cups, bowls, fruit, Lysol wipes, warm gloves, and hand warmers,” says Kadri. “We need all the help we can get. Having volunteers really counts!” Speaking with volunteers from Al Rashid’s emergency winter shelter affirmed my belief in the power of community. The challenges may seem daunting as they’re iced over by neglect, prejudice, and lack of compassion, but our efforts can become a flame of hope and kindle a better future for our society. Simple initiatives, driven by empathy, illuminate our lives and others’ lives.
Graphic by Shelby Mandin