A few weeks ago, Abbis Mahmoud’s restaurant empire was bustling, with stylish diners packing his collection of upscale cocktail bars and country saloons and upmarket gastro-pubs in Toronto and Ottawa, Canada’s capital.
But as the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic started to permeate everyday life, he started having some sleepless nights.
“It was all weekend, I just couldn’t sleep. I kept listening to the news and all the seniors who are going to be at home, if they need food, what are they going to do? Are they going to risk their lives?” Mahmoud remembers. “I couldn’t imagine being in their shoes. It just really bothered me.”
So Mahmoud took action. Taking $40,000 of his own money, on March 16, he purchased food—a lot of it—at wholesale prices, and started Operation Ramzieh, named for his late mother. He then set up a clearinghouse at The Waverley on Elgin, one of his flagship restaurants in Ottawa, which he had voluntarily shuttered amid the crisis.
Putting out a call on his social media for volunteers, he says, people flooded in to help.
“It just exploded,” he says.
Working while using proper social distancing, these volunteers filled the posh space, now stacked up with crates and cans and pallets, packing boxes filled with essentials such as pasta, bread, milk—and, of course, toilet paper.
“We’ve sent thousands of boxes, we’re opening in Toronto, and we’re getting calls from cities across the country.”
While dramatic, Operation Ramzieh is just one example of “caremongering,” a grassroots movement that’s gaining traction across Canada in these troubled times. Intended to be the opposite of “scaremongering,” volunteers simply want to ensure the safety and well-being of their neighbors. And it’s all been completely spontaneous, organized through concerned individuals on social media.
Already, in these early days of the crisis, examples are numerous. The first Facebook group, set up less than two weeks ago, quickly spawned others, and within 72 hours these, collectively, had more than 30,000 members, according to the BBC. And things have grown substantially since then. The groups now range from small neighborhood pods with a few dozen members, to larger “mutual aid” groups.
Flowing from a Facebook group there, a toll-free phone number was set up in a heavily populated region in the eastern suburbs of Toronto, and volunteers respond with food, or whatever else is needed.
In the blue-collar city of Hamilton, and Calgary, a big city on the prairies, and in numerous other villages, towns, and cities, the same thing is happening. On Quadra Island, a remote, rugged, beautiful place off the coast of British Columbia with just 3,000 residents, locals, again organized through Facebook, are making pharmacy runs, cooking hot meals, even giving away items from their own homes if they’re not available in stores. One group of women cooked up huge batches of borscht, a traditional Ukrainian soup, to distribute to anyone who’s hungry.
Mahmoud, who says the project has already outgrown his restaurant—they moved to a community center, and are setting up shop in a convent—feels that it’s all a natural, human response to suffering and especially uncertainty.
“People are sitting at home, and they’re seeing all this bad news, and they want to do something,” he explains, adding that other businesses have pitched in, too—hotels and other restaurants have donated their perishables, stores have sent supplies, a flower shop even pitched in, so they could top each box with a nice, fresh bloom. And farmers have trucked their crops right to his door.
“We had one farmer give us 1,500 pounds of potatoes. He could’ve sold them, but he didn’t. He gave them to us instead,” he says.
The whole experience has already been transformative for Mahmoud, and his volunteers too. Rebecca Sheik, who normally works as a manager at The Waverley (and who is Mahmoud’s cousin) hasn’t taken a day off since Operation Ramzieh started. Answering phones, she’s on the front line, and says she’s fielded many calls where people are dealing with deep, serious anxiety and distress.
“They’re worried about everything, everyone from single parents to the elderly,” she says. “You can hear it in their voice, they’re shaky.”
Sheik even diverts calls to her personal cell phone in the evenings, and recently answered an urgent one at 12:02 a.m. It was from a widow, who lives with her daughter, both of them with health problems. Stuck inside, they had no food, and no family to bring anything to them. They talked for 45 minutes, she says, and the women got a box first thing in the morning, which was received with tears and profuse thanks.
Mahmoud adds that they’re reaching some of the most desperate and vulnerable, people living close to the edge who, in these extreme circumstances, risk falling off that cliff, including a single mother who called up, saying she had no baby food. She was suicidal. He personally went and bought some, and delivered it to her home.
Natib Khatib, a longtime friend of Mahmoud’s, is on the frontlines too, driving the boxes to people’s homes.
“Their faces just light up,” he says, noting that recipients are still taking proper precautions—and then some. “Some won’t open the door, so we leave it outside—then we see them spraying the box with Lysol.”
Mahmoud has heard stories from other drivers (and gathered from his personal deliveries), of people who blew kisses and sang songs to his volunteers, and of joy and gratefulness in tough times.
Sheik feels that there are bigger lessons here. That through providing for your neighbors, day to day, everyone is discovering deeper human truths.
“During war, during tragedy, that’s when the love really shows, and we know we’re all in this together,” she says. “That’s what’s going to get us through this—realizing that humanity, we’re all one.”
Tim Johnson is a Toronto-based journalist, who frequently covers travel, education, and other topics. He’s been nominated for five National Magazine Awards and visited 145 countries on all seven continents.