Dishing up soup, tea, sympathy and support
PUBLISHED: 17:00 20 February 2020 | UPDATED: 15:54 24 February 2020
Photography by Ken Mears
The Recorder spent an evening at a remarkable Romford soup kitchen which serves up far more than just a bowl of food.
When Tabby Hussein reached her 40th birthday she wanted to give something back to the community.
So she secured a sheltered hut built by Havering Islamic Cultural Centre (HICC) in Waterloo Road, Romford and joined forces with Cheryl Simpkin, who had already started up a kitchen in Romford, to run the Soup Kitchen at HICC.
Mum-of-two Cheryl said: "I was just so shocked at how many people I saw sitting in shop doorways when I was walking around in Romford. When you talk to them, their stories are unbelievable."
However, this is not a soup kitchen like any other, for here the guests receive top-quality restaurant meals, served to them at their table.
First the volunteers provided everyone with and coffee as they waited patiently for the main event. Before long, a man in a trim satin blue suit, Remzi Erdogan, who had come straight from waiting tables at swanky Turkish restaurant Mangal Meze in nearby South Street, arrived with crates of dishes from his kitchen, which usually sell at around £14 each. He donates 50 of these a month.
Mr Erdogan said: "I do it because it I really believe in helping the community."
He added that being there made you realise that people didn't just become homeless because they were lazy or incapacitated:
"It could happen to any one of us overnight."
The kitchen receives donations from a collection of restaurants around Havering - Hornchurch's Tandoori Lounge, Poppin's Cafe, Dixy Chicken and Pizza Go Go - which provides for an eclectic rotating menu!
Among those enjoying the delicious Turkish feast were four army veterans, 20-year-old twin sisters, both recent mothers, and a mix of people living on the streets and in accommodation, but all surviving on a shoestring.
One guest, Kelly Jones, a native of Hackney, first came to the soup kitchen after a change in family circumstances caused her to become homeless for a while. Now back on her feet, after experiencing an epiphany that led to her turning her life around, she still comes regularly for the company, which she missed.
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"It's more for people in need, and I'm not always in need so I did taper off for a little while," she said. "But where I am there is only me and my dog and I don't get visitors or phone calls and so once a week, I come," she added, happily batting off all the people trying to get her attention.
Another guest, Ian Kassmer, has now also been rehoused but he still enjoys coming to the kitchen from time to time.
"It's nice to be able to get out," he said. "I was homeless myself so I can relate to a lot of people here. We're lucky because other boroughs are quite bad, with few shelters and kitchens."
But as well a shelter, a hot meal and company, soup kitchen organisers can also provide vital social support to anyone who needs it.
Indicating a lady dressed in a sari, Cheryl said: "I've recently been to the GP with her, making sure she gets everything she needs for her baby."
Tabby adds: "Yeah, just now Alex asked me for a [job] reference asking me to say how long I've known him and to confirm he's never been abusive."
The volunteers go out of their way to help turn round the lives of the those who eat at the kitchen.
Mitch Ryan, for example, a volunteer from May and Baker Rugby Club which donates clothes and food, is taking on a 20-year-old to start at his company specialising in eliminating asbestos. Only a few weeks ago his new employee was sleeping in a bike shed.
Doing their bit to chip in by manning the second-hand clothes pile, secondary students from the Royal Liberty school laugh and chatter with the guests.
Eren Bozacigurbuz, who is 15, said: "When I started I was a bit nervous, I didn't know what to do, or why I was there. But, literally, after the third week, it was like a family.
"I didn't really understand why people were in the situations they were in," he added.
Now though, he realised that there were people who found themselves in difficult circumstances,"and it's not always their fault."
The soup kitchen at HICC is open 6pm to 7.30pm every Wednesday. Anyone wanting to donate or help out with the wonderful work the team are doing for the community is encouraged to contact Cheryl on the Facebook page.