The parents answer: A HOT MEAL AND A WARM WELCOME | Lifestyles


A volunteer shouted, “Let’s make this happen,” and an unusual assembly line swung into action at a small ranch in Clayton, Missouri.

Two people opened cans and filled large aluminum trays with food on the dining room table. A handful of others posted themselves around the table and scooped up rice, beans, chicken and lettuce in restaurant-grade paper bowls. In a narrow hallway, two women were pouring salsa into plastic containers. Taco salad meals migrated to boxes in the living room, where assistants added water bottles, desserts and disposable cutlery.

Each box was adorned with a handmade “Welcome to Saint-Louis” design before being glued and sorted by delivery location. Later, a few volunteers drove to three local hotels where evacuees from Afghanistan are staying while waiting for accommodation.

Riz Khan, 55, and his wife, Farah Alam, 50, are organizing and supervising this operation from their home. They are part of a grassroots effort to show people relocating to St. Louis that they are wanted and welcome — a goal shared by groups like Welcome Neighbor STL and House of Goods.

Khan and Alam launched this specific project in partnership with the International Institute of St. Louis a month ago. But the couple’s desire to help their local community started much earlier, in 2013, when they started a nonprofit for children in need called the Little Angels Foundation.

Their mission to redirect excess food to those in need took off during the pandemic. In the spring of 2020, they started cooking dozens of meals and distributing them to homeless people.

“All my free time was spent packing food into bags,” Alam laughed.

The effort eventually attracted corporate sponsors like Starbucks and Panera. People are drawn to the cause and Khan’s tirelessly optimistic energy.

“Our vision was to bring people together – Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs,” Khan said. That’s what makes their weekend meal assembly line unique: it’s a mix of people from all walks of life and walks of life, from the couple’s 13-year-old daughter to business leaders to retirement.

When I went to observe their work, my husband and daughter came and were swept up in the effort. Our kids decided they wanted to come back on the weekends to continue participating. The desire to be part of something, to feel that we are doing something good for others, transcends age, ethnicity and religion.

People like Khan and Alam have created an opportunity for others to give – in whatever capacity.

Khan immigrated to St. Louis from India in 2005, when his wife was accepted into Washington University’s MBA program. He worked in marketing and she works in corporate finance. He suffered a major heart attack in his early 40s and lost his job 2½ years ago. But these setbacks allowed him to find his true mission: to provide direct assistance to people in need.

He documents and coordinates their efforts on LinkedIn, Facebook, WhatsApp and NextDoor. Foreigners will place welcome signs made by their children in front of their door. All cooking is done by volunteers and all supplies are donated.

Afghans temporarily staying in hotels rely on grocery store gift cards to buy food and use the kitchenettes to cook their own meals. (The International Institute, which has helped resettle about 500 Afghans over the past year, has given out $80,000 in gift cards.) Khan remains part of the meal delivery team, which delivers between 100 and 150 meals at a time. The Afghan families insist that he stay for a cup of tea in the hotel lobby.

A man told him that he had a construction company in Afghanistan, but had fled with nothing. Khan uses his professional contacts to help him find employment opportunities.

Her non-profit work goes beyond simply distributing hot, home-cooked meals. After nearly two years of isolation, people are craving connection.

That’s what it aims to deliver.

Aisha Sultan is a St. Louis-based journalist who studies parenting in the digital age while trying to keep up with her tech-savvy children. Find her on Twitter: @AishaS.


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