“We will always find a way to lift each other up”: Operation Ramzieh volunteers on what it’s been like to help some of Toronto’s most vulnerable citizens
Since March 27, more than 5,000 crisis kits with essential grocery items like rice, pasta and fresh produce have been distributed to Torontonians in need by Operation Ramzieh. The brand-new charity, backed by Dreammind Group, an Ottawa-based hospitality firm, is run entirely by volunteers. Abbis Mahmoud, president of Dreammind, kickstarted the initiative with $40,000 out of pocket, but the volunteer-run group is now taking donations on GoFundMe, with $88,000 in donations collected at the time of writing.
The initiative started in Ottawa, delivering about 500 boxes a day—with each box containing enough to feed a family for a week—and expanded to Toronto at the end of March. The demand is so great, Operation Ramzieh has now been designated an essential service. Here’s what some of the organization’s front-line volunteers had to say about what it’s like delivering food to those who need it most.
Abbis Mahmoud, president of Dreammind Group
“Earlier this week, we went to a seniors’ centre to drop off about 200 boxes. As we were driving up, one of the residents was on her balcony. She asked if we were the people with the food, and then she started cheering for us. It’s just incredible, the blessings we’re getting. I started this to feed seniors, but a lot of crisis centres, like drop-in centres for single mothers, have closed since the pandemic began. We’re feeding a lot more people than I anticipated. Recently, someone donated colouring books and toys—that really made my day. We’re working hard to ramp up operations so we can donate not just hundreds, but thousands of boxes per day.”
Ilon Tyan, director of marketing at Dreammind
“The biggest shock for me was seeing how many Torontonians truly are in need. We’re reaching people who needed help before the pandemic hit, people whose lives are severely affected by even the slightest shift in their circumstances. Suddenly they can’t go outside, food banks are changing hours or shutting down, and social services are being affected—their lives are just crashing down. It’s heartbreaking to see how fragile food security is in our city. We started by focusing on seniors, but seeing how many other people needed help, we just couldn’t turn anyone down. A lady called and said, ‘I know this is for seniors, but I have a baby with asthma and I’m scared to leave the house. Do you have any milk?’ Someone else reached out to us asking if we were a legitimate organization. When we assured him we were, his tone changed completely—he said he thought he was going to die of hunger all alone.”
Sharad Mohan, brand manager for Nobis
“Building these relief packages is one thing, but seeing the joy, gratitude and sincerity from the individuals and families receiving them is simply priceless. There’s no denying how vast and unforgiving our current situation is, but volunteering with people and organizations like this gives me incredible hope knowing that no matter how dire it gets, as a community, we will always find a way to lift each other up. Coming together with total strangers and pooling our strengths towards one common goal of helping others feels like a privilege.”
Vedika Solecki, founding partner of Connoisseur Planning
“My goal is to just make someone smile during the process of delivering these packages. We had the opportunity to donate 90 boxes to Nellie’s Shelter, a not-for-profit women’s organization, and I was among the volunteers helping with the dropoff. We weren’t able to meet any of the women who live at the shelter, but we received such a heartwarming welcome from the associates there. Seeing the gratitude on their faces was enough for me. I couldn’t hold back my tears during that delivery. It made me feel that I can make a small difference by doing this. I know those women smiled when they opened the boxes and that warms my heart.”
Mark Holmes, vocalist and guitarist for Platinum Blonde
“My first day volunteering with Operation Ramzieh opened my eyes to our new reality. When Abbis and I went on our first delivery run, I had a very special encounter with a single mother. When I knocked on her door, a very happy and smiling face was there to greet me, and when I gave her the care package, she burst into tears. Then I started crying, too. As I left the building where she lived, I couldn’t stop thinking about her. When I returned to the car I looked at Abbis and said, ‘I am changed forever.’ Throughout this health emergency, I’ve been asked by concerned family, friends and fans who wonder if volunteering with this organization is worth the risk to my own health. After that day, my response has been a simple one: this is more than worth the risk. If I eventually succumb to this virus, then I leave this world with a full heart. What more can anyone ask of life?”
Mitch Krystantos, sales representative for Royal LePage
“When Abbis called me three weeks ago and asked if I would be part of Operation Ramzieh, I didn’t hesitate to say yes. I knew what this city’s most vulnerable citizens must be facing, and I knew I had to help. It has been incredible to see how, in just a few weeks, we managed to put a team together with one common goal: feed people. I knew we would be making a difference to these vulnerable families, I just never imagined to what extent. Every person I have met has greeted me with open arms—metaphorically speaking—and some have even cried. I’ve shed a few tears myself.”