Sister Sabria, the Mother Theresa from Malaysia, shares on her life’s inspirations.
With volunteers of the SSF
There have been many stories and articles of Sabria Hussein in her years as a humanitarian activist. Every day, in the month of Ramadhan, the Malaysian lady and her volunteers spend over 10 hours cooking. She serves an estimated 500 hungry students, needy families, homeless and destitute at the Concordia University and transition home in Montreal, Canada. She considers herself as a mother figure to the hundreds of youths that she helps, understanding that some students miss feeling at home, especially when they study far away. Her labour of love has garnered international attention, even prompting the Prime Minister of Canada to extend her a visit (which she had to decline due to a busy schedule). On her recent visit to Malaysia, Sister Sabria shares where she finds her strength and inspiration for her life’s work…
The Orange Juice
I grew up in a large family. I had six siblings, but my parents, bless them, had adopted 12 other children, so including them, there were 20 of us. My parents inherited their caring and compassionate nature from my grandparents, who were always on-the-go to help people. Growing up in an environment where you’re surrounded by adult figures who are rooted in their caring and inclusive nature planted the seed of appreciation in me. I became very thankful for what was given to me.
Of course, as a child growing up, you are never exempted from the learning curves of life. Being a part of such a huge family, almost everything I did or received was shared. The clothes on my back were hand-me-downs, my books were second-hand, and all our food was doled out equally. It was a constant cycle of communal belongings. My parents never left us needing for anything. We got everything we absolutely needed to become healthy children.
Sister Sabria, the Mother Theresa from Malaysia.
Occasionally, my mother would give us treats. One of my favourites was this really amazing, sweet orange juice. Naturally this big bottle of orange juice was shared amongst the siblings. One day I said to my mother, “when I grow up and get married, I’ll buy myself a big bottle of orange juice and drink by myself. No sharing!”
My mother, perplexed, retorted, “why would you have to wait until you get married?” She understood that I was simply a child – albeit, at that age, quite a cheeky, outspoken child. But I never caused much trouble, or asked beyond our means. So, this was one of the few occasions where I actually voiced aloud my simple wants. My mother fished around in her purse, took out some money, and handed it to me. “Here, you can get your orange juice now. Just go ahead to the grocery store, buy it, and don’t come back until it’s finished! If you bring it home and your siblings see it, you’ll have to share. Please enjoy it.”
I do my work out of pleasure.
I was over the moon! I felt like the most special, most loved child out of the bunch that day! Mind you, our parents never mistreated us, but to have an extra goody all to myself made me feel so chuffed. I ran to the corner shop and found myself a bottle of my favourite orange juice. I sat outside on a bench, where the sun was shining, and began to drink it to my heart’s content. It tasted so sweet! So delectably good! My first few sips were heavenly. But this soon changed.
It was on my third sip that I began to see the faces of all my other siblings floating in front of me in the air. The more I sipped, the more they stared at me until I just couldn’t shake the thought of my brothers and sisters missing out on the joy of this sweet orange juice. Without thinking twice, I screwed the cap back on the bottle and walked home, each step increasing my excitement to be the bearer of good news to them – we have extra orange juice to share today!
When I reached home, my mother greeted me with dismay.
“Why did you come home with a full bottle of orange juice? Now you’ll have to share!” She lamented, worried for my happiness.
Slowly, I recalled to her seeing the faces of all of my siblings in front of me, and how I just couldn’t stand the pleasure of drinking alone. I had never been so singularly selfish, it felt quite foreign to me, and so I sincerely wanted to have it with my siblings.
It was in this moment that my mother uttered the words that have stuck with me forever. Words that I have held on to in my life’s work. Where she bent down, stroked my hair and said, “MasyaAllah child, may you grow up to be a child of barakah, may you grow up to be a person of worth one day, and be good towards others”.
I saw in her eyes how proud she was of me that day. And even now, almost 64 years later, I still look back at that event in my life and am thankful for how they have raised me. Because truly, without my parents, I would not be the person that I am today.
The Drunk Man
I was trained as a teacher in Singapore for a school with special need students. One day, there was an ad for posting in Montreal as a teacher in a school, and I applied. I was one out of the many that actually received an interview and ultimately got the job. In the first week, I was in a dilemma, as the cafeteria served pork soup. As a Muslim, we are not allowed to touch pork. If I were to serve it and it splashed on me (as accidents do happen when you’re working), I would not be able to pray.
I have always placed my duty to Allah SWT above all else. When I raised my concerns, I understood that the school had to let me go. But praise be to Him that almost immediately after, an opportunity opened for me to work as a governess to take care of a child who suffered from down syndrome. This was the beginning of my career in Canada. It is where I met my husband and eventually built new roots there. It is also where I became more active in my work.
One of the first few churches that I volunteered with was the River’s Edge soup kitchen that operated in a community church. Twice a week, we would feed the community, whether they were poor, homeless, or merely unfortunate members of society. There was a man who was a regular coming in to eat with us, and he was always drunk! Because of this, he could get quite aggressive and used to be bullied by the other visitors of the kitchen.
We cannot judge who we help.
Somehow, he would always come to me. If he had a problem, he would always search for me. Perhaps it was because I was one of the few people who would talk to him matter-of-factly. He would even frequent my transition home, (for women in trouble and needing help); to ask for food and help.
One day, he came to the church bleeding and made a beeline straight for me, calling my name. As I dressed his wounds and talked to him, we started to build a bond. His name was Dave Nicholas. From there, I considered us as friends, and I would try my best to be there for him. I recall one incident where he came running into the church, followed by three men, who told us he had tried to steal their bike. Attempting to defend himself, this drunk Dave said he was only testing the functionality of the bike. I tried my best to diffuse the situation and no harm was done. There were many other funny incidents. Through it all, he would always come to me.
As I was working in the kitchen one day, we heard a crash outside of my transition home. A couple of people came running in, and upon seeing me, told me the news – that Dave had been in an accident, and he had passed away. They told me that before the ultimate moment, with his last breath, he was looking around and he kept saying ‘sister, sister’.
Although sister is a general term for those working in the church, I knew he was looking for me. When I went outside, my heart broke. I knew in this moment that I had no power to spare him his pain, but still I prayed to Allah SWT for his soul to be taken care of. I understood then that we cannot be judgemental in who we help. It does not matter if they are of another race, religion, or gender. That meeting inspired me to be more compassionate, more loving, and to do more in my life. To this day, I remember Dave, and the lessons of my meeting with him have stayed with me.
I used to volunteer as a chef for summer camps with the Muslim Student Association in Ontario and Montreal. There would be about 180 students, and around 20 facilitators. Every day, I was in charge of managing the menu and kitchen staff, preparing for the food, and making sure all of the participants in the camp were well fed. One night, as I was sleeping, I awakened and realised that we were making baked chickens the next day, and I had yet to take it out to defrost! I went through the ingredients list for the next day’s menu. Realising this mistake, I hurried over from my room to the kitchen. At this time, it was around 2.15am, and everybody was in their cabins. Nobody saw me going in to the kitchen. Personally, I didn’t want to bother anyone either.
I went to the freezer, and started taking out the boxes of chicken. It was one of those big, industrial walk-in freezers. When I went in to pick up the fourth box, suddenly, I heard the door slam shut, and everything went dark! Unfortunately, this freezer was not designed with an emergency handle from the inside. I felt my way on the cool surface and couldn’t find anything to help me. I pushed. I pulled. I tried at the crack between the door and the wall to no avail. I realise I was trapped. What more, I was shivering cold, it was in the middle of the night, and no one knew I was there.
In helping others, race, gender and religion does not matter.
So, I went straight to the cold floor and prostrate to Allah S.W.T and prayed, pleading for help. I realised that I have to pray and I kept praying. I talked to Him and I told Him that I had lots of commitments, and that I had hundreds of people to feed, especially with Ramadhan approaching. I was assigned to cook at community kitchens throughout the month.
I prayed to Him and said that “if you were to take me now, who would be able to cook or manage the hundreds of people waiting to be fed in this camp and in Ramadhan?”
I prayed for His forgiveness. I prayed for Him to take me out of this total mess. In between my prayers, I kept trying to open the door with all my might, but it just wouldn’t move.
As I continued praying, I started to make promises. Back then, I did not wish for my work to be publicised. I tended to do things on my own, and minded my own business. I began to realise that I had a bigger role in sharing what I do. I needed to educate others, especially the younger generation, of my work and the responsibility each of us have in the community. In my sujud, I promise to do more.
I continued praying, seeking for help and forgiveness, relying on his power. I stayed in sujud and prayed for almost ten minutes. By this time, the lit-up screen on my watch showed that it was already 3.05am. I was chilled to my bones.
I decided that I would continue trying until I had no energy or warmth left in me. Resigning to my fate, I told myself to try and push the door one last time. It had been almost two gruelling hours. At this point, I was at my lowest and my weakest. I persevered for one last try. I pushed the surface of the door. At the touch of my cold fingers, it cracked open outwards. The door widened just enough for my small frame to slip through. With that, I escaped that cold room.
There was no one else outside. No draught, no change in pressure or heat that I felt. I went to the cabin and told the other counsellors of what had transpired. They helped me recover my warmth.
The next morning, we did solatul syukur for my safety at the camp.
Sister Sabria is still active in her charitable works. She currently runs the Sister Sabria Foundation based in Montreal, Canada, and can be reached at https://www.facebook.com/SisterSabriaFoundation/ , Website; www.sistersabria.org , email to: firstname.lastname@example.org or phone num: 514 489 3487 or Cell: 514 992 3487.