A male voice on the other end said that it was Irfan Motiwala. He said he had raised a small sum of money to donate to Sewa International and requested Kavita Tewary to meet him in person. Kavita, who received the call, is indeed a good friend of Irfan and his wife Shaolin, as well as Shaolin’s sister, Lin. The call was initiated by Kavita so that she could learn more about the journey of both Lin, and her brother-in-law Irfan, and how they had responded to the COVID-19 pandemic as they owned and managed a restaurant, “Aling’s Chinese Bistro,” in the bustling, big city of Houston, which is now the most diverse city in the US!
It was a pleasant conversation in which they told Kavita about their struggles, and how the hospitality industry had suffered the past year due to COVID-19. But they wanted to make a difference, and despite their own challenges they wanted to make a difference in society. They had thought about it carefully and had decided to donate free meals to frontline workers. That over the past year they have served 15,000 of those free meals is an amazing story, a classic American story.
Shaolin and Lin’s grandparents had moved a long while ago from China to Kolkata and had then relocated to Mumbai. Shaolin married Irfan in Austin in 2010. Both Shaolin and Irfan, who have settled in Houston, Texas, are from India. Lin and her husband Gary Yan, who is also an Indian, left for Toronto, Canada and later moved to Houston and they run the Indo-Chinese restaurant, Aling’s Chinese Bistro, with Irfan. Gary is a chef and had worked at a famous restaurant in Mumbai. And in an interesting combination of roles, Shaolin, Irfan’s wife, is also a chef.
The two couples have been part of the Houston community since 2010, but they continue to maintain their strong links with India. Kavita was curious about how they negotiated their complex mix of identities – Indian, Muslim, Chinese, American – and wondered about their connections back in India. They are well-settled in the US but consider India home: “Of course, we have come to America and now we are living here. But we love India as much as we love America, and our home is still India,” Irfan told Kavita.
Last year, with the start and spread of the pandemic was both unexpected and really hard in the beginning. People stopped going to restaurants, and Lin and Irfan found it hard to lay off more than half of the restaurant staff: “We have a family kind of setup in our restaurant, and everyone has a big smile on their face at work. So, you can imagine how hard it was… like losing one’s family, when Irfan had to let go of people, and that too when none of the staff wanted to quit,” Lin told Kavita. The kind of commitment to work and to the restaurant could not have come without the love and respect which Lin and Irfan have earned from their employees.
Kavita had called Irfan one day last year, and he had sounded a little careworn, depressed. He had found it difficult to let go of some of the employees, and it was weighing him down. But he was also thinking of doing something positive in response to the pandemic. “We want to do something for the frontline heroes. We feel helpless when doctors, nurses, and others are suffering so much,” he told Kavita, and since he knew Kavita was involved with Sewa International had asked how he could work with Sewa. That conversation led to something big for both Aling’s Chinese Bistro and Sewa International, setting as they did a trend in Houston by serving hot meals to frontline workers.
“We are at war,” Kavita remembers Irfan telling her about the pandemic, “and the only people fighting are the doctors, nurses, medical professionals, and frontline workers. We must give back to society in some way. We know how to prepare food. The country has given us so much. Whatever we can do now serving these frontline heroes cannot compare with what we have received from this country”.
Kavita recollected what Irfan told her about the morale of the staff. They were stressed, feeling low, but then came the decision to cook a meal for hospital workers. Later, there was an order to deliver to a police station, and more meals at the mega vaccination sites, with people standing in the hot sun all day trying to do the testing and the pretesting for the virus. Irfan said that his staff felt good that they were doing something useful. It was hard as the staff worked extra hours, without any income. It was then that the bistro’s customers decided to do something and help Irfan, Lin, and the restaurant staff. People had started asking how they could be part of this effort by the Bistro, and how they could also contribute. They began donating, which was unexpected, and which encouraged Lin, Irfan, and the restaurant staff in many ways. Customers and their children came forward to volunteer, and helped in delivering the food to the hospitals, and police stations, confirming the Sewa belief that “together we serve better”. One of the customers who began raising funds to support the restaurant collected more than $15,000, and because of that money Lin and Irfan could cook and distribute quality food to those they deem heroes.
After seeing the work of Lin and Irfan five other restaurants started serving food to hospitals and COVID volunteers. Now, many more restaurants are doing so. But Aling’s Bistro has served the Houston community the longest and are still serving. So far, the Bistro has donated more than 18,500 meals to frontline workers. And Irfan and Lin have spent over $15,000 dollars from their own, and they have done their work in collaboration with Sewa International.
“Why did you choose this fundraising project for Sewa International?” Kavita asked Irfan who told her how he had admired the work Sewa volunteers had been doing even before the pandemic, and that he knew some of the Sewa volunteers. “One thing that I admire in Sewa is volunteerism. You have so many volunteers who come out all the time, constantly, no matter what the situation is. You spend so little on administrative expenses, and you offer so much to the community. We knew Sewa even before the pandemic. I always admired Sewa because I knew a few people -- you, Dr. Raj, Gitesh ji, Akhilesh, Nikhil… and you are all doing amazing work,” he told Kavita.
Kavita thanked Lin and Irfan for trusting Sewa International and told them about what inspires Sewa volunteers -- the joy of service, believing that serving humanity is serving divinity, and serving all without favour. “It is such a beautiful synergy when people work together. You are the experts in food, and we organize events and bring volunteers to serve. In the end, it is the community that is the beneficiary, and it is our community,” she told them.
Irfan told Kavita that he has met many wonderful people in Houston, and that one woman, who took the lead in fighting the pandemic had raised money to help 200 refugee families. “She provided them groceries for a week,” he told Kavita.
Asked to share some final thoughts and concerns about what is happening in India, Irfan said he is praying that India would soon get a handle on the situation. “I cannot imagine what they are going through, right now. But we should do our best to support India. The country has gone through hardships and a lot of ups and downs. People are volunteering, they are coming forward to fight against this pandemic. Indians are very brilliant. They will come out of it. It is a matter of time,” he said.
Kavita told them that the global community is supporting India, and while the initial response was slow everybody now realizes that we are in this together. “None of us are going to get out of the grip of COVID-19 until everybody gets out of it,” she told them.
Lessons have been learnt in responding to the pandemic not just in the Houston community but around the world. People are coming together, and this pandemic offers us a moral about the need to ignore differences, build bridges. People like Lin and Irfan embody that spirit.
(The recorded conversation between Lin, Irfan, and Kavita has been edited for clarity.)
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