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refugees in b.c.

Mainu Ahmedi, Director of the Muslim Food Bank, is photographed at the Muslim Food Bank & Community Services in Surrey, British Columbia, Monday, December 12, 2016.Rafal Gerszak

The Globe and Mail is looking at people who have been touched by the refugee crisis British Columbia, from sponsors and teachers to the refugees themselves.

Mainu Ahmed recalls that catastrophic confusion made the case for a Muslim-based food bank several years ago.

Muslims collecting food from the Surrey Food Bank, he said, did not always realize they were getting items whose consumption could violate their faith – such as pork. Where they had come from, they took canned food, for example, for granted.

The result, developed over several years from a household garage to its current 2,200-square-foot space in a warehouse, was the Muslim Food Bank Community Services where Mr. Ahmed is now director.

Although open daily to receive donations, the food bank opens two Saturdays a month to provide food consistent with the Muslim faith, including halal items. It is all funded by the community. Demand has surged with the arrival in the past year of thousands of refugees from Syria.

Mr. Ahmed, an accountant who emigrated from South Africa eight years ago, spoke to The Globe and Mail at the food bank, located in an industrial area, not far from a SkyTrain station.

Do you ever have non-Muslims coming to use the food bank and what happens to them?

Yes. What happens with non-Muslims is when people come in the first time, they would go through eligibility. Part of that eligibility will be, "Do you require any specific food in terms of dietary restrictions?" Now the person will say, "Well, actually no." [We say], "Well then maybe this is not actually the right place for you." On the day they arrive, they will never leave without any food. On that day, they will get a hamper and they will get a referral letter to Surrey Food Bank. We've got an arrangement with Surrey Food Bank and they know when they get that letter, they will see that client and they will register that client because they know the client has come from us. It does happen occasionally, yes.

Do you get clients coming from outside of Surrey?

We get clients coming from as far as Abbotsford. Langley? They get here. Basically what happens is you normally have one or two volunteers in the community who will actually take it upon themselves and say, "Okay, I will bring five people through today and we will come and collect." What we also do for the new refugees who have settled in Abbotsford is get someone to collect on their behalf and distribute out there. The benefit of them coming is when they are here, they get linked into other resources and other things.

Some people may say that food is food and it doesn't matter if the food is in synch with the faith of people that need the food.

I say it's part of your human right and part of our rights in Canada to be able to live your faith or engage in your faith in a way that is important to you. And if your faith has a part that talks to vegetarianism or halal, then I feel that is as much your right to be able to do that. And people shouldn't be forced to eat other things just because they happen to be poor. I feel there are enough communities in Canada to be able to support that. I am never thinking that there's no need for a traditional food bank because there will always be a need for a traditional food bank. But I definitely think there is a need for supplying people with food that they will be comfortable with in terms of eating or in terms of their faith.

How did you come to be a volunteer in this whole enterprise?

I have always been involved with the community. I have worked with the food bank, on and off. Our CEO's kids and my kids go to the same school He's been begging me for a long time to get involved. Often he would say, "I don't need you to come and fold sugar packets. I need your brain." I realized that being in Canada – although I came here under very fortunate circumstances – has a whole host of privileges. We don't often realize how privileged we are. For me, I needed to find something in my life that's more than just the physical or just material benefits. As an accountant, that feeds my family and my stomach. The work that I do here feeds my soul.

What have you learned being involved with all of this?

I recall one day we were handing out clothes. There was a Syrian doctor. He said to me, "You know, never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that one day I would be standing in a food bank collecting clothes. I had a flourishing practice. People had to wait for three or four months to see me. My life was perfect. Through things beyond my control, I was forced out of my country. I was forced to walk for miles and live in a camp with my family." For me the life lesson there is, "Don't take things for granted." It could actually happen to anyone. And it could happen anywhere.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Elham Nanaa is adapting to a new life in Canada at Toronto’s Malvern Junior Public School, in a classroom where other refugees are learning the skills they need to integrate