In a rare show of interfaith harmony in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, a mosque is cooking up and delivering free meals to the needy from different faiths, as the pandemic batters the economy in one of Asia’s poorest countries.
Since September, members of the Nwe Aye Sunni Jame Masjid in Yangon have been raising funds and providing daily prepackaged meals to COVID-19 quarantine centers, hospitals, and individual people left destitute by virus shutdowns in the commercial capital.
The meals were originally made to help observant Muslims in quarantine who did not have access to halal products, but that changed as a second wave of the coronavirus plunged the country into crisis, destroying businesses and livelihoods.
“We never ask people their faith and belief when they ask us for help,” Zaw Min Latt, a trustee at the Yangon mosque, told VICE World News.
The Southeast Asian country regularly tops world generosity indexes, with natural disasters sometimes pulling people together despite a long history of religious conflict and persecution of minorities, especially Rohingya communities in Rakhine state.
The coronavirus has killed more than 3,000 people, with at least 500 cases a day threatening to overwhelm a health system neglected over decades of military rule. But the outbreak has also helped create a source of unity, at least in more cosmopolitan Yangon, where mosques, churches, Hindu temples and a synagogue dot downtown streets.
The mosque’s members soon found themselves helping a variety of people facing joblessness, hunger and uncertainty.
Until the pandemic hit, Than Zaw Htut worked at one of many “blind massage” businesses in the city, a key source of livelihood for those with limited opportunities. But all of them were closed during months of lockdown measures.
“We’re blind, we didn’t have any chance to go out and work during the pandemic,” Than Zaw Htut, who is Buddhist, said in an interview.
He found out about the mosque by researching online with an audio app for the visually-impaired. After reaching out, he and other out-of-work colleagues have been receiving meals for about a month now.
“I am very thrilled our Myanmar people are helping each other regardless of religious faith,” he said.
During a period of peak demand, the mosque was providing 2,500 food boxes in the morning, and another 2,500 in the evening, with meals going to everyone from quarantine centers to frontline medical workers.
“People came and thanked us when they finished their quarantine and hospitalization. We were delighted,” Zaw Min Latt said. “We also received donations from other religious members… Buddhist people, Hindu people and others came and donated to us.”
“These are not just halal meals for Muslims but to others who are in need,” he added, highlighting vegetarian options for those who don’t eat meat.
It’s a big operation requiring around 120 volunteers per day in an activity room converted to a kitchen during the pandemic. While preparing food they wear masks, plastic gloves and hair nets.
The site itself hums with assembly-line activity, as volunteers dish out soup and curries, add seasoning and condiments, and package the food in rows laid out on a long table. The meals are then grouped into black plastic bags with labels for delivery, put in an ambulance, and dropped off around the city.
Than Than Pyone, a 60-year-old woman and Buddhist living near the mosque, has been helping since late last year. On a recent day she arrived early in the morning, ready to cook and prepare deliveries.
“I am happy as these go to needy people at the hospital,” she said, while packing box after box of food.