This Volunteer Cook is Making Montreal a Better Place for Those in Need

Growing up in Malaysia, Sabariah Binti Hussein delivered food to villagers in need. Years later and half a world away in Montreal, that calling remains.

Sabariah Binti HusseinPhoto: Neil Mota

This Volunteer Story Will Warm Your Heart and Whet Your Appetite

On a warm summer Monday in July, a few weeks after Ramadan has ended, a diminutive 69-year-old woman dressed in yellow florals and a purple plaid apron stands in front of two giant soup pots. “Brother Kalil,” she says, wielding a massive wooden spoon, “it’s time to add the milk!”

Sabariah Binti Hussein, known by most as Sister Sabria, hums with energy. Today she and her volunteer team of eight have gathered on the top floor of a residential building in Montreal’s Notre-Dame-de-Grâce neighbourhood to prepare corn soup, baked potatoes and phyllo pastry stuffed with ground beef to take to the nearby River’s Edge Church community kitchen.

By 3 p.m. things are in full swing. Kalil Sackobah, 26, is helping Hussein make the soup in the apartment where she lives with her husband. The space, warm and inviting, is filled with plants and aquariums that house comet goldfish and African cichlids and bubble away in tandem with the pots on the stove. Down the hall, in two apartments that provide shelter for community members in need, other volunteers work on the balance of the dinner. (This Montreal optician is providing affordable eye care to those in need.)

Hussein prepares meals for River’s Edge every Monday, something she’s been doing for several years. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays she visits sick friends in the hospital and helps families at loose ends. On Thursdays she cooks food to sell at mosques on Fridays. The money she makes, along with community donations, allows her to fund her shelter and feed the community. While she’s just emerged from her busy period—she spends the month of Ramadan cooking food to supply for iftar, the post-sunset meal that breaks the fast—she doesn’t seem to have slowed down much.

“In Islam,” she explains, “there is a Hadith that says before you sleep, check if your neighbour is hungry. For me, the church people, the surrounding area, they are my neighbours. So I check whether they are hungry.” (This Facebook group is making Toronto safer for everyone.)

When she arrived in Montreal from Malaysia over 30 years ago, she says, the city’s pluralism reminded her of her home country—people of all different racial, religious and ethnic backgrounds living side by side.

Once the soup is simmering away, Sackobah takes his camera out of his backpack and begins to snap photos. Hussein’s long-term goal is to open a home for orphans of the Rohingya people, a Muslim minority group fleeing persecution in Myanmar. She is preparing to speak at a fundraising dinner in Ottawa, held by the Muslim charity Human Concern Inter­national, to raise money for the project. A previous fundraiser netted $16,000, leaving her with $134,000 left to collect. Sackobah’s photos will help bring attention to the cause.

The aquariums throughout Hussein’s apartment remind her of growing up by the ocean. When she needs a break from her volunteer work, she rests on the couch next to her goldfish. “I just lay down here and take a little nap,” she says. “It’s very relaxing.” (These great Canadians are making an impact in Canada and beyond.)

But there’s no time for a breather today: as soon as the food is ready, Shiao-Lan Pan arrives from the church to help haul it to the community kitchen. Pan, who has known Hussein for more than five years, says she once asked her what it meant to be Muslim and serve food at a Christian church. “Sister Sabria said, ‘You’re my brother, you’re my sister,’” Pan says. “Her generosity, and what she believes, transcend the boundaries of religion and culture.”

Bob L., who attends dinners at the church, agrees. “She’s got a heart like a saint,” he says.

At River’s Edge, about 70 people are waiting for their dinner. Hussein and her volunteer crew hop into action, joining church volunteers and kitchen coordinators Rob and Heather Aitken to prepare plates.

“Sister Sabria’s a great cook,” Heather says. “People enjoy her food.”

“She’s a blessing,” Rob adds.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada