Food festival celebrates diversity, puts spotlight on Yemen crisisWritten by Chelby Daigle
Despite a day of truly terrible weather, well over 800 people turned up for the International Food Festival on Oct. 14. They came out to the St. Elias Banquet Hall to enjoy food and performances representing Ottawa's multicultural mosaic and to show their support for the people of Yemen.
The festival, a joint initiative of local youth group Gentler and Softer Hearts and the charity Human Concern International (HCI), raised awareness about the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.
Alawi Assaggaf, co-founder and Executive Director of Gentler and Softer Hearts said his group decided to direct their time and energy to raising awareness about Yemen's humanitarian crisis which they felt is particularly underreported in mainstream media.
An estimated 10 million Yemenis are in need of food assistance, including nearly a million children under the age of five who are acutely malnourished. According to the United Nations, Yemen is the poorest country in the Arab World. Due to its volatile security situation, it is often hard to reach some of Yemen's most vulnerable and needy populations. As a result, Yemeni children are dying of easily curable illnesses, such as diarrhoea, due to an extreme lack of basic medical supplies and equipment.
Mr. Assaggaf says Gentler and Softer Hearts grew out of the desire by group of Yemeni Carleton University students' desire to bring the Ottawa Yemeni community together across the many political and regional divides that have flared up since 2011.
“We Yemeni have a long history of living and working together despite our differences. We wanted to remind our community of this. The name of our organization comes from a hadith of the Prophet Mohammad, peace be upon him, who said: ”˜The people of Yemen have come to you and they are more gentle and soft-hearted',” says Mr. Assaggaf.
To raise funds for their campaign, Gentler and Softer Hearts wanted to do something innovative and youth-driven that engaged the wider Ottawa community.
“We wanted to encourage integration and collaboration between different communities across national, cultural, and religious boundaries. Our organization wants to promote tolerance and understanding within the Yemeni community, but also between different communities because we all share a common humanity,” Mr. Assaggaf says.
Finding partners from diverse ethno-cultural and religious communities was made possible by the social networks of many of Gentler and Softer Hearts members. As Mr. Assaggaf explains, “We are students so we have friends from around the world. We asked them to help us with the event and connect us to their community leaders and organizations in order to get their support and sponsorship.”
These networks drew in donations, sponsorships, performers and the purchasing of sales space in the mini-bazaar from a diversity of individuals and communities including members of the Indian, Afghan, Latin American, Indonesian, Romanian, Filipino, Yemeni, and Bangladeshi communities.
Using social media such as Facebook and YouTube, Gentler and Softer Hearts solicited sponsorships and promoted the event far and wide. Manar Al-Shaebi, Gentler and Softer Hearts co-founder and Vice-President, was surprised when her mass emails promoting the festival garnered a sponsorship from the Embassy of Kazakhstan, who also sent a representative to speak at the event. The festival also received extensive coverage in mainstream media such as the Ottawa Citizen, CBC, and A-Channel.
Human Concern International partnered with the youth group to support it in its fundraising efforts.
“HCI is supporting the initiative of Gentler and Softer Hearts by collecting donations on our website and acting as their channelling, monitoring, and reporting partner in order to ensure that the donations are managed in the right way,” Mahmuda Khan, HCI's Events and Communications Officer says.
The money raised will go to buy urgently-required medical supplies and equipment in Yemen.
For Mr. Assaggaf and Ms. Khan, the main highlight of the festival was the sheer diversity of attendees. Ms. Khan expressed particular excitement with the fact that members of so many different faith communities had an opportunity to learn about HCI's work and even approached HCI staff to learn more about contributing.
For Ms. Al-Shaebi, the highlight of the day was when members of a traditional Yemeni dance troupe started dancing “Gangnam Style” raising laughter and cheers from the crowd watching them. According to Ms. Al-Shaebi, “It was great to see this mixing of two dance forms and two cultures. It was great to see our youth taking pride in their Yemeni culture and heritage but also having fun and expressing their connection with Canadian and Western culture.”
To learn more about the campaign to raise funds for medical supplies and equipment in Yemen visit:
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