Words by Jobe Baker-Sullivan / Pics by Ed King & Saba Malik
Saba Malik moved to Erdington some two years ago with her husband Adeel Bajwa and three children. In normal circumstances she would be working as a secondary school science teacher. During lockdown, she took to volunteering to help the vulnerable in our community.
Saba is part of the Ahmadiyya Muslim faith – a movement founded by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, formed officially in Punjab in 1889 – and does community work through the Ahmadiyya Muslim Women’s Association (AMWA) in Erdington. Ahmadiyya Muslims are a unique and worldwide religious movement outside of the more well-known Sunni or Shia faiths, with 144 ‘branches’ across the UK alone.
Initially, the AMWA didn’t cope well with the monotony of lockdown: “they are used to having about 20 people over every weekend,” says Saba. Better at cooking potatoes rather than being couch potatoes, Saba galvanized the team of about 25 women into cooking up hot meals for vulnerable people around Birmingham, but especially in the Erdington Community. “Why not?”, explains Saba, “this is using skills, resources, something they can do, so we got in contact with those ladies and they’re more than happy – we got a bit of a rota going now.”
The AMWA joined up with Birmingham Community Solidarity group, which was set up very quickly in response to the announcement of lockdown on March 23rd – the group acts as sign posting for people with free time wanting to help those in need, with Saba becoming a key part in their delivery work in North Birmingham.
Always humble, she notes that “there’s amazing charities out there and organisations. We have a really good COVID-19 response as well in Erdington with the food deliveries.”
Helping those in need is a family affair for the Malik-Bajwas. Saba has created more than 50 protective masks at home using her sewing machine, and explains how her son, Yousuf, “wanted to learn to sow after he saw me on the machine for two days – and I thought, ‘good these are the things you learn!… I’m grateful we can share this with our children.”
But the Malik-Bajwa’s family approach didn’t stop there. “The littlest one has got a fan base of her own,” explains Saba – referring to Ayla, her youngest daughter, who has been writing letters and creating artwork for those people receiving regular food packages.
“She can’t write completely! When I give deliveries, she comes with me. She just makes cards. She’ll write ‘I love you’ to whoever it is, and draw a picture, she puts it in an envelope, goes into the study, finds an envelope herself and decorates it.”
These simple acts of kindness can go a long way. As a proud mother, Saba recounts that “there are some who are completely on their own and they’re isolating, and it really makes their day. It breaks my heart when they tell me that they stare at her cards all day and it makes them feel happy, or they’ve got them on their fridge. If it makes them feel happy it’s good. I tell her ‘it’s so nice that you’re sharing your talent. It’s the cycle of wellbeing.”
But whilst volunteering efforts can be noble, they aren’t always appreciated. Not at first, anyway, as Saba recalls a situation where one of the women she met became suspicious of her appearance – noticeably the headscarf she was wearing at the time.
“You know you are right,” explains Saba, “because one of the women I met first…. she spoke to me after and said ‘when you turned up… I don’t wanna be offensive, I don’t wanna get anything wrong. But you had this a scarf on your head, you had this mask on your face… and I just thought, who is this person who’s come to me’?”
“Headscarf,” Saba laughed, politely correcting the mistake. And after talking some more, the woman admitted: “I never felt like I’ve ever discriminated, but without realising that’s what I felt when I saw you… she felt bad about it after, and we’re really good friends now. But that’s how you break down barriers sometimes, and it works both ways.”
But it’s not all about the hearts and minds when it comes to community action, someone has to do the paperwork – and admin queen Saba Malik keeps a keen record of all that the ladies group do. To date the Birmingham North branch of Ahmadiyya Muslims have distributed 200 meals, delivered 340 PPE masks, and are in constant contact with families across the constituency: “who have been 100% supported through donations and cooked food.”
Now the lockdown pressures easing, Saba reflects on her time over the past couple of months. “It’s been long weeks of lockdown. I don’t want to open my diary,” she jokes. Always comparing her family to those less fortunate, Saba continues, “we’re just incredibly grateful it’s not been as challenging for us.”
Volunteer efforts, like Saba’s and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Women’s Association, have been integral to helping people cope during the coronavirus pandemic – with faith and community groups working together to help their friends and neighbours. This phenomenal show of strength and community action has alleviated the anguish of lockdown for thousands across Erdington, much of which is unseen and unreported.
But the message that runs though many of the groups who are out there serving the community, is inclusivity – regardless of faith, age, status, or standing, now is the time to help. And as the web address and strap line for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Women’s Association declares, ‘Love for all, hatred for none.’
Words Saba Malik underlines, clearly and confidently, when asked about the people her group want to reach out to and help: “…any religion, it’s irrelevant.”
To find out more about the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community UK, visit www.loveforallhatredfornone.org/