SOCIAL ISSUES

Do only crises bring us closer?

On Monday 12th November 2018 Sana Muhammad, 8 months pregnant and a mother of 5 was fatally shot with a crossbow by her ex-husband in Ilford. Miraculously, her son was delivered safely after an emergency cesarean, but Sana died in hospital less than four hours after the attack.

The brutality of the attack shocked the country and deeply affected the Newbury Park community, of which Sana was a well loved member. The community came together in the strongest way to support the family. The funeral was funded by Garden of Peace, local police were overwhelming in their support, and a crowdfunding campaign raised over £8000 for the family. However, what touched me most was how 4 months later, the community continues to support Sana’s family through a food rota.

I was struck by the gesture of reaching out through food. A powerful gesture, yet not intrusive. Coming from a Latin family, cooking is most definitely a practical act of love. I always return from my mother’s waylaid with Tupperware of home cooked meals, fully understanding the gesture of hours of her time cooking for me. And, for Sana’s husband and the children, the simple act of cooking holds a much deeper symbol of support. Each meal is accompanied by the unsaid communication that we, as a community are looking out for you.

Supporting the family through food started when the family had to be housed in temporary accommodation whilst the police investigation was ongoing. This act of support continued even once the family moved back to their home but a neighbour and good friend of Sana observed that 3 or 4 people were dropping off food in one night whilst there were no signs of food on other nights.
She took it upon herself to coordinate a meal rota to make sure the family consistently had one meal a day and acknowledging that although the support was flooding in now, people might not continue after a week or so. She wanted to make sure that the support continued until the family got permanent help. 

So, she put out a message to the Newbury sister’s Whatsapp group, created for the mothers of children at the local primary school to ask for details from those who wanted to continue cooking. The response was amazing and the message quickly spread through different circles, shared with friends of friends who all wanted to contribute in some way.

In times like these, help and support arrive in heaps and bounds. Someone need only send out a message of help and the message goes far and wide. There always seems to be an abundance of goodwill but why does it only appear in such strength during crisis? How do we unleash these touching notions of kindness more readily?
Firstly, for there to be a chance of this happening there needs to actually be a local community. The reality of modern day Britain is that one in eight people cannot name any of their closest neighbours. We no longer make the time or effort to interact with our neighbours. Love thy neighbour and sugar lending seem a thing of the past.

I admit, I myself fall into this category. On reflection, I wish I had made the rounds when I first moved into my flat. Although, in all honesty, social awkwardness would likely have prevented me knocking on anyone’s door. And surprisingly, I haven’t caught sight of a single soul on my floor to even reach out and say hello to. Knocking on someone’s door seems invasive and certainly nobody came round with welcome muffins. It appears I am not alone in this, with two thirds of Brits admitting that days can pass without seeing others living on the same street.

Humans have a deep need to connect, after all we are a group species but social norms of formality seem to be a barrier preventing us from making that first move with our neighbours. A crisis is an event that gives us that social permission to break down those barriers and reach out in empathy.
Social taboos that exist in British culture teach us to mind our own business but this leads us to disconnected rather than cohesive communities. With strangers surrounding us, how are we to know if people are suffering silently behind closed doors? What is our duty as a neighbour and fellow human-being to look out for those that surround us?

Promisingly, the government has recently launched its first loneliness strategy, referring patients to community activities and voluntary services. One of the initiatives is the £1 million pocket park fund to transform unused spaces into new green areas with the aim to encourage interaction with neighbours. Safe public spaces are essential for social interactions.

Although one step in the right direction, we too need to change our ways. We need to get out and connect with our community and whilst doing so, actively keep out an eye for neighbours that might appreciate that extra TLC. Closer bonds and trust in communities can lead to the most powerful gestures of support and an empowered and united community has the strength to bring real positive change to all those within it.

Angela Tolliday is Senior Programme Manager at Acumen