‘We’re Muslim and we’re just like you’: The women taking care of Dublin’s homeless

showcase mag

It’s 6pm on a Friday in February and Met Éireann has issued a snow and ice warning for most of the country, urging people to stay inside as temperatures plummet nationwide. Flecks of snow blow across O’Connell street as a biting cold wind roars under the arches of the GPO. Around the corner, on Prince’s Street North, Lorraine O’Connor is co-ordinating the transfer of boxes and bags of food from a couple of parked cars to a group of women setting up tables outside the post office’s front entrance.

After seven years of organising the Muslim Sisters of Éire’s (MSOE) Friday soup kitchen, O’Connor runs the evening like clockwork. This week they have 470 hot dishes ready to hand out along with fruit, cheese, biscuits, bread, fizzy drinks and doughnuts.

Outside the GPO, a crowd of about 50 people has already gathered, waiting patiently to collect their dinner packages. They include single men, young couples, families with five, six, sometimes seven children. Dublin accents mix with languages from across the globe as the diverse group stamp their feet to keep warm.

Shortly after 6.15pm, the women lined up behind the tables start handing out food and the queue begins to move forward. O’Connor hovers nearby, staying away from the crowd because of an underlying health issue but keeping a sharp eye on every single movement. “I’m kind of like the mother hen watching,” she tells me.

Marcin Paskowski is near the top of queue. An electrician by trade, he lives in a nearby apartment but rarely can afford food after paying all his bills, he says. “I try not to abuse the system so don’t come here too often. But I haven’t eaten anything for 72 hours; when I’m starving I come.”

A couple of metres behind, Leonard (20) is hugging his girlfriend Elizabetha (18) to stay warm. “We’re homeless so we come here every night to get fed,” she says. “We used to sleep on the streets but now we’ve got a hostel. Hopefully soon we’ll find a gaff.”

John Hennessy stands at the tables distributing hand sanitiser and handing out masks to the growing line of people which now snakes around the corner onto Jervis Street. He volunteers with soup runs around the capital six nights of the week and started doing security and general crowd control for MSOE a few years ago.

“No matter where you go in Dublin you’ll find someone in a tent, someone wrapped in a sleeping bag,” he says. “But the one thing they won’t do is starve. There’s someone doing a soup run every night of the week at least.”

I became Muslim for myself, not for any man. But I also became an immigrant within my own country

The Muslim sisters first started outreach meals nine years ago at the Merchant’s House Quay homeless charity. O’Connor recalls the shock on people’s faces when women in headscarves emerged from the kitchen with trays of food. “They thought we were nuns and asked what order we came from. They were surprised but they just wanted to know who we were. There was no hostility.”

After a few years of distributing food around the city centre, O’Connor decided in 2014 to set up a Friday night stand on O’Connell Street. The first evening was “very hostile”, admits O’Connor. “In the beginning there were lots of people who were not sure about women in hijabs. But when I told them I was Lorraine from Coolock, I’m a northside girl, it opened a dialogue. It gained trust and understanding. This didn’t happen overnight but the trust there is now amazing.

“Homeless people are stereotyped, so are Muslim women. They’re stereotyped because they have addictions, because they don’t have a home. They are the forgotten people in our own society.”

When the pandemic hit last year, the group put the weekly Friday runs temporarily on hold. “Everybody was terrified at that stage but then I got the call from Tesco saying they still had food for us. If I said no, all that food would get binned. We put a call out on our Facebook and ended up sending 60 hampers a week out my front door, most went to non-Muslim families.”

The Muslim Sisters of Éire run their Friday soup kitchen at the GPO. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
The Muslim Sisters of Éire run their Friday soup kitchen at the GPO. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
The Friday night soup kitchen at the GPO. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
The Friday night soup kitchen at the GPO. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

The charity group also continued distributing bags of food and hot tea to people living in tents along the Grand Canal along with gift deliveries to children in direct provision throughout the pandemic.

O’Connor converted to Islam and started wearing a hijab in 2005, nearly 20 years after she married her Muslim husband. The first few years of wearing the head scarf were not easy, she says. “I became Muslim for myself, not for any man. But I also became an immigrant within my own country. I started having racial abuse, people around me accused me of forgetting where I came from.

“I was surprised by the hostile mindset people had towards Muslim women. I wondered should I strip off this hijab, go back to being Catholic. Or should I move forward with the faith I firmly believed in.” She chose the latter option and went back to college to study for a master’s in women’s studies.

The goal of MSOE, which O’Connor set up 11 years old, is not only to support some of society’s most vulnerable people but to dispel preconceived notions about Muslim women, she says. “The whole point of Muslim Sisters of Éire was to break that stereotype and show people Muslim women are not oppressed, they’re very much a part of Irish society.”

Attitudes towards “difference” in Irish society have changed drastically over the past 15 years, says O’Connor. “We’ve seen a lot more acceptance and trust from people in recent years. Our biggest donations are from the Irish public, they’re amazing. Visibility of Muslim women in Ireland is much better than 15 years ago. There will always be racial issues with all ethnicities but things are becoming easier.”

Sabina Syed, who has been an active member of the charity for nearly eight years, says the group plays an important role in helping young Irish Muslim women feel confident about wearing their headscarves. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Sabina Syed, who has been an active member of the charity for nearly eight years, says the group plays an important role in helping young Irish Muslim women feel confident about wearing their headscarves. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Sabina Syed, who has been an active member of the charity for nearly eight years, says the group plays an important role in helping young Irish Muslim women feel confident about wearing their headscarves. “Apart from it being a charity, my main concern was giving my girls the understanding that they can do whatever they want while wearing a hijab,” she says of her 13- and 17-year-old daughters.

Growing up in a country where very few women wear a headscarf, Syed’s eldest daughter had plenty of questions when her time came to start wearing the hijab. “Before, when I was growing up, we were told to do something and didn’t ask questions. But now we have to explain the logic behind the scarf. Her friends ask questions and she brings those questions back to me. Now she’s in a school where she’s the only Muslim girl but the staff are very nice and she understands the logic behind the scarf.”

Syed, who moved to Ireland in 2000, says Ireland has “grown up” during her time here. “There was a time when I was scared to wear my hijab in the city centre, that people would say things to me. But since we started going out to the GPO we’re quite well recognised, people smile at us. We have shown that Muslim women can have a positive impact on this society. We are doctors, engineers, teachers. We can do anything we want with our hijab on, it’s just a piece of cloth on our head.”

Nikki Joyce, a phlebotomist at Tallaght hospital who converted to Islam in 2019, doesn’t wear a hijab in work yet. “They’re not used to seeing me in it but eventually I’ll get to the stage where I’ll wear it.” She recalls how a young woman once asked why she was wearing a cloth on her head during the soup run.

Nikki Joyce, a phlebotomist at Tallaght hospital, converted to Islam in 2019, and helps out at the soup kitchen every Friday. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Nikki Joyce, a phlebotomist at Tallaght hospital, converted to Islam in 2019, and helps out at the soup kitchen every Friday. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

“I reminded her that nuns wore them and that her grandmother probably wore a scarf everywhere she went. It’s to do with modesty, it’s nothing to do with oppression. And for me, it’s an identity thing. You can see my face, you don’t have to see my hair and body.”

Joyce’s two teenage children are Catholic but are interested in their mother’s decision to convert. “I brought my children up to be very open and nowadays there’s such a mix of kids in their schools they’re used to it.”

Joyce was “dumbstruck” the first time she took part in the Friday GPO soup run. “I hadn’t really done charity work before, it blew my mind. It’s amazing the different types of hidden homelessness – people may have a roof over their head but not enough money to eat.”

The group’s outreach work targets people from a whole array of backgrounds, she says. “We focus on everyone from Billy the builder to Zainab the teacher. This is what Islam is about, it’s about giving back.”

Noora Auckloo arranged to take every Friday off for the year to help MSOE with the soup run. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Noora Auckloo arranged to take every Friday off for the year to help MSOE with the soup run. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Nooraza Auckloo, who works as a healthcare assistant in A&E at St James’s Hospital, is helping hand out food with Joyce the night of my visit. The pair have continued to volunteer over the past year despite the long, stressful hours of working on the front line during the pandemic.

Every Friday morning Auckloo, who has lived in Ireland for 14 years, drives from her home in south Dublin to Tesco where she picks up supplies for the evening. When Auckloo first started helping out three years ago, she admits there were “ups and downs”.

“There were some people who would pass by and say ‘Go back to your country.’ That can break your heart because you’re just trying to do something good. But I know at the end of the day I’ll be rewarded for my efforts.”

Originally from Mauritius, Auckloo usually takes a month’s annual leave to visit family during the summer. However, in 2020, when it became clear she would not be able to travel because of Covid-19, she arranged to take every Friday off for the year to help MSOE with the soup run.

“I wasn’t going home and wanted to do something with my time. I live here on my own, I don’t socialise much but then I met some of the sisters through this and they became like family. All week you’re overworked, when Friday comes I find this new energy.”

O’Connell is not surprised that the group has become a place of comfort and friendship for its members. “We’ve all faced so many obstacles. It’s only in the past three years that it really feels like a game changer in Irish society. We’ve seen a lot more acceptance. That’s the sheer determination of the women and the love they have for the work they do. It’s their determination to make people accept them for who they are. What we do is a gesture of goodwill but it’s also letting people know we’re Muslim and we’re just like you.”