Zahra Foundation, and Food as Community Service: A Report
By Taiyaba Ali
What was initially began as an aspiration to establish a food business serves a much larger purpose today. Zahra Café and Restaurant at Jamia Nagar’s Tikona Park by Mohammad Saif and Javed is not just catering to students and the local community with its famous Tandoori Chai and Biryani but also funding the charity work carried out by the Zahra Foundation. In 2014, Saif and Javed both clandestinely took to social work after college hours and offered remedial classes to the children living in the slums of Okhla’s Batla House area, an area where most of the people are daily wage earners and labourers, rickshaw pullers, rag pickers, or house maids. It was tough for the duo to convince these people to send their children for extra classes, since most of the children helped the parents economically to sustain their families. However, the parents came around when they were promised iftar (the meal with which Muslims break their daylong fast in the holy month of Ramzan). They were promised food in lieu of sending their children to Saif and Javed for two hours. The first education centre that the two young men came up with was a small room, near the Batla House graveyard; but with the numbers growing there was need for a larger space. Mr. Ansari the proprietor of Sugra Public School (in the same locality) allowed them to use his infrastructure for their education centre after the duo approached him to let them use his school post its working hours. Since then, the iftar distribution drive became a regular thing and the education centre came to be known for the exceptional work that it was doing.
Zahra Café and Restaurant opened its first outlet in August 2018, the second one came up in the very next month, and by November they were able to open the door of their third and the biggest venture. While the café is Saif and Javed’s brainchild, their childhood friends and fellow students at the University – Shaghil Iqbal and Fahad Masood Farooqui – joined Zahra’s core team and now all four manage the Café as well as its charity initiatives. The instant popularity of their food made them a local favourite and helped them generate more funds for the iftar distribution drive in the slums of Batla House, Madanpur Khadar, and also the Rohingya refugee camps in Kalindi Kunj and Shram Vihar. Since 2017, the Zahra Foundation has been helping nearly 500 families each year during the month of Ramzan.
Here is an excerpt from an interview with Saif, the president of the Zahra Foundation, in which he talks about his ambitions, and his plans around food, about how food binds people, and how his café is turning out to be an agent of change:
Taiyaba Ali: Can you tell us something about your core team?
Saif: All my team members came to Delhi from a small town in Uttar Pradesh to pursue higher education at Jamia Millia Islamia. Javed and I started voluntarily teaching a handful of children in the slum area of Batla House, while we were pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree in English. By July 2017 we were already teaching 150 children with the help of other university students and friends who wanted contribute to helping the under-privileged. There has been no looking back ever since. On March 5, 2018 the Zahra Foundation became an officially registered body.
TA: How do you see food as a medium of socio-cultural interaction?
Saif: Food is obviously integral to everyone, in every form. For our venture food has been the binding factor. Initially it helped us take the parents of our students in confidence; when we promised to help them and provide them with food. During the food distribution drives that we did in the beginning the packets were numbered due to limited funds; we were paying from our pockets. Those who were left out and did not get the packets of food went back disappointed and that also made us realize the added weightage of hunger. So, the perspectives have changed and we have developed our concept every time we step out in the field. Now, we are serving people with food in our café, and in turn that is empowering us to be able to help other people.
TA: Why did you open a food café?
Saif: Once the education centre was active, we knew that any full-time job that we take up is going to interfere with this work. Also, Javed and I always wanted to do something in the food industry, it always intrigued us and with the upcoming café culture there was a certain glamour that we associated with it. However, we see it in a totally different light now. We were able to go ahead with our plan because we did not spend much time in planning and overthinking. Our optimism and enthusiasm helped us get things done quicker than we had imagined and the first outlet of Zahra Café was opened in August 2017.
TA: Tell us something about your early days, right after you opened Zahra Café and stepped into the food business.
Saif: When we started the café, we did not have any work force, just the four of us who had committed to it. Our famous Tandoori Chai was a hit and trial of our own kitchen. We would get there in the morning and clean up the space ourselves, most of the times doing it behind closed doors for we didn’t want our teachers living nearby see us doing all this. Next was prepping for the service and serving the customers. Sometimes the service was heated up, quite literally. Tandoori chai requires a really hot clay cup and in the rush of completing the orders, once I held it with my bare hands. Even with bruised hands there was no stopping the food from being served. We started returning home after midnight regularly, after finishing the accounts for the day and closing up. All through our undergrad days we made and drank tea, burgers, and sandwiches, and these were then put on the menu because that was all we could handle at that time. At present we have a staff of 13-14 people across the three outlets and we don’t have to do the ground work anymore. We have specialized chefs for Biryani and it is a local favourite. But now that we look back, it was only our enthusiasm that got us through all that we had overestimated and underestimated about the food business.
TA: Managing the foundation, and running the education centre and the café simultaneously is a lot of work. What keeps you going?
Saif: All that we have achieved in such little time and how it is fulfilling our vision is extremely rewarding. When we see the then and the now of the children we started working with, how their personality has developed over the years and academic performance has improved, it is such an energy booster. 3 girls whom we helped academically in the beginning, appeared for their standard 12 exams and graduated with flying colours, and have now joined the other members of our team at the education centre as teachers. Another young boy is a manager at one of our cafés, and three others are working with us as support staff. They are earning and supporting their families and it is small victories like these that keep us motivated. Our students participate in various activities at different platforms and have been a part of many initiatives. The children whom we have taught help us in packing the food boxes for the iftar distribution drives; they earn their rewards, making them feel responsible. It is overwhelming to see how food has established a symbiotic relationship between us. Zahra Foundation is a trusted name in the community now and parents approach us all the time to mentor their children even when the seats at our education centre are full.
TA: You have also helped the Rohingya Refugees in the nearby settlements. Tell us something about your experience of working with them.
Saif: We have tried a couple of times to benefit their camp through our food distribution drives. However, they are high on the political radar and there has been a conflict of interest with the higher authorities, hence we have to be careful that it doesn’t affect the overall work that we are doing in this locality. Mostly, we arrange for the food and the Rohingya camp leaders coordinate with us for the distribution. Having said that, it is important that they are looked after because it is not easy living a displaced life.
TA: Do you accept funding from sources outside your business earnings?
Saif: The restaurant and the cafés are funding the education centre and our business expenses completely right now, but we do run deficits sometimes since there is so much going on. The earliest food donation drives and education centre activities were paid from our pockets till the time our work wasn’t out in the open, but our friends and family have supported us in exemplary ways. Currently we have two regular donors who give the foundation a fixed amount each month. The first education centre which was run in Mr. Ansari’s Sugra Public School was lent to us free of cost and our current centre at the Riverland Public School was also allotted to us at no cost by its manager Mr. Aziz Ansari for the charitable work that we are doing. The Ramzan food distribution drives in our early days were only possible through donations. Hopefully more people will recognize the work we are doing and be a part of the change we are trying to bring.
TA: Lastly, why did you choose the name ‘Zahra’ for your foundation?
Saif: We get asked that question a lot. Zahra in Arabic means a flower. Hence not only is it beautiful, but also innocent. With the start of the education centre we are working with children who do not deserve their present condition and by working towards bettering their lives, we want to keep their innocence intact.
Photographs © Taiyaba Ali. You can get in touch with the Zahra Foundation through their website <http://zahrafoundation.in/>
 Saif and Javed started teaching a bunch of kids (more like remedial classes) near a small room adjacent to the Batla House graveyard, whom they would run into frequently in the locality. It was a secret initiative from friends and family because they themselves were outstation students and were taking out time and pocket money which was supposed to be used for their university education. Also, since they were doing it as a charity act, they didn’t want unnecessary attention for their actions.
 The original room that the duo had occupied for their voluntary work was insufficient in terms of capacity and prone to influx of rain and water logging due to its location. When the strength of this batch increased as the word spread in the slum, there was a requirement of better infrastructure, but with minimal cost. They requested Mr. Ansari to permit them to conduct these classes in the after working hours of the school. Mr. Ansari got a background check done on the boys and the work that they were doing in the community and gave them a green signal. So now, not only did they have a much bigger, space but also other materials of a class-room setting.
Taiyaba Ali is a student of English Literature with an unending interest in everything food. Her work experience includes skills facilitation for the underprivileged youth in Delhi. When free, Taiyaba spends time reading and documenting about food and culture. She aims to build scholarship connecting narratives around traditional cooking and its impact on history and culture. Born and brought up in Lucknow, India, Taiyaba owes her fascination for Urdu literature and culture to her hometown but also feels passionately about Delhi where she spent time studying for some years.
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