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  • Kai Hui Wong

Roaming the city with kindness: Food delivery riders help KL's homeless

This article was originally published at Malaysiakini :

FEATURE | It is 10am on the morning of Friday, April 10. Dozens of food delivery riders had gathered outside a shopping mall in Petaling Jaya, Selangor.

The convergence was not because there were famous eateries at the mall or increased demand for deliveries due to the movement control order (MCO) being in force.

Instead, the riders were preparing to roam the city, going the extra mile to perform acts of kindness by providing free food to Kuala Lumpur's urban poor and the homeless who have not been relocated to shelters by the City Hall.

It all started last month with Foodpanda rider Mohd Firdaus Abd Hamid, who, concerned about the well-being of the frontliners assisting in the coronavirus pandemic and the needy, began collecting small amounts of money from other Foodpanda riders via their WhatsApp group.

"We managed to collect RM615 in just four hours, some donated RM5, some donated RM10, and some donated more than that," Firdaus told Malaysiakini.

Their first batch of deliveries was made on March 18, the first day of the MCO. They delivered over 100 packs of free food to frontliners that day.

This aid work of Firdaus and his friends soon caught the attention of others.

Joining forces GrabFood rider Mohamad Amer Rezwan Jamil had just made a delivery when he saw a group of the Foodpanda riders delivering aid to the University Malaya Medical Centre in the early days of the MCO.

Curious, Amer turned back to meet with the group and soon the riders from competing services formed a collaboration to do their aid work.

When Malaysiakini met the riders on April 10, there were 19 of them from GrabFood and 16 from FoodPanda.

By this point, the riders had shifted their focus from frontliners to helping Kuala Lumpur's downtrodden and had made Friday their day of operations.

Firdaus explained this was because, before the MCO, most of the group's riders who were Malay would typically arrange for either a break or an off-day on Friday so they can attend Friday prayers.

Since Friday prayers were suspended during the MCO, Firdaus said most of the riders were now free to carry out their aid work on this day.

"We plan to do this every Friday until the MCO ends," Amer added.

Compared to some larger NGOs that have a more comprehensive aid system in place, the riders' initiative is more loosely organised and adapting as they go along.

The group does not have a clear list of members yet, nor an official bank account. Everything is based on mutual trust among the riders.

Amer said the GrabFood riders in the group would send money to his personal account and he would then transfer a certain amount to Firdaus weekly. "So far the GrabFood riders have donated about RM700, and we spent RM300 today, and the remaining amount will be used in the following week," he said.

Besides sending cooked food, the riders have also, on occasions, sent groceries to those in need.

Cooking up a storm

They have also begun scaling up the amount of aid they send. At first, the group would just deliver about 150 packs of food, but by April 10 they had increased this to 600 to meet the needs of those they help.

Some of the food aid has been home-cooked by some of the riders and their families.

Irfan (above) and his younger brother are both GrabFood riders. While the 28-year-old did not contribute to the fund, his family spent hours preparing 54 packs of food to add to the 600 being delivered that Friday.

"My wife, my dad and mum helped to prepare this food," Irfan said while showing off the stacks of food packed into his delivery carrier.

"We started cooking from 9pm last night (April 9) to about 3am this morning and we packed the food by 5am. We have made Roti Arab, chicken curry, sardines and some vegetables," he added.

Home-cooked is just one way the riders are getting help to carry out their mission, besides cash injections.

Bino, an owner of a motorcycle rental company in Sungai Way, is offering riders in the group bike washing, for just RM1.

The small business owner was a part-time delivery rider before the MCO, and is now doing it full time after his business took a hit during the order period.

Meanwhile, 25-year-old FoodPanda rider Yanni (above) is helping out by delivering the food aid with her car.

The part-time student had just joined FoodPanda when the MCO started in mid-March and was unaware of the aid project until after the weekly collection deadline last week.

"I think I can help to carry (the aid) using my car instead," she said.

"We know that the frontliners have had many resources by now, there are many donations for them. But for the homeless in the city, who will get close to them and help them?"

"So, we, the riders, want to use this opportunity to contribute what we can. This is my understanding of the initiative," Yanni added.

Operating in a grey area

After the MCO started last month, efforts were taken by the Kuala Lumpur City Hall to place the homeless people in temporary shelters.

However, Malaysiakini has found that not all of those homeless have been relocated and that many are still living on the streets of the capital.

Many civil society groups have moved in to assist the marginalised and needy since the order period began.

However, the government has since imposed new guidelines from early this month, requiring aid workers to register and work with the Social Welfare Department.

However, Firdaus, Amer and the rest of the delivery riders have not done so and appear to be operating in a grey area of the MCO.

This is because food delivery is considered an "essential service" and the riders are allowed to be on the streets while working.

When Malaysiakini was with them last Friday, the car which carried hundreds of the food packs had been delayed by a nearby roadblock, causing the riders to loiter outside the mall where they gathered for over an hour.

Firdaus told Malaysiakini that this led to a misunderstanding, which caused the mall's management to call the police on them, as they thought the riders were on strike.

Four police officers later showed up and asked them to disperse immediately.

While Firdaus and Amer tried to explain the situation to the police, other riders in the group began loading their carriers with the food aid that just arrived, and rode away.

The riders later regrouped by the roadside to have a quick discussion before splitting into two smaller teams to distribute the food.

Delivering aid without an address

Usually abuzz with activity, the Kuala Lumpur city centre was unusually empty that Friday afternoon, the quiet interrupted by the sound of the riders' motorbikes zooming about. They had no list of addresses, but the group knew just where to go to find the homeless and needy who required their help - the bus stops, the sidewalks in front of certain shops and the shaded areas. It was a skill they learned from roaming the city during days and nights, making their food deliveries.

The riders had very little contact and interaction with their aid recipients.

They would pass the packed lunches to them, ask if they needed water and left after handing them the drinks.

Most of the homeless just nodded or said "thank you" before returning to where they were seeking shelter.

While other riders were busy distributing food, young rider Aisyah appeared to be searching for a different group altogether.

"Many shops are closed now, I can't even find the cats anymore. I wonder where they are," the 19-year-old told Malaysiakini.

Aisyah, who is a part-time FoodPanda rider and restaurant worker, said that she always brings some cat food with her so that she can feed the strays.

The migrants and urban poor

The last stop for the riders that Malaysiakini followed along on that day was at the middle of two blocks of shophouses in Chow Kit, which were packed with migrants and urban poor families.

The riders honked their motorcycles loudly to attract the attention of the residents upstairs. A few seconds later, people of all ethnicities began to run downstairs.

Some residents were shirtless, and some were in their sarong, while others wore loose nightgowns.

Some of them wore cloth masks, while some of the women wrapped their scarves around their faces. After getting the free food, they hurried back upstairs to their living quarters.

While the aid was being distributed, several curious residents who had not gone down to get aid peered at the riders from their balconies and windows. A few had their phones out to record the moment, while some waved to the riders.

Overall, the 654 packs of food were distributed within two hours.

Serving the community with dignity

The riders clapped their hands and cheered after they had emptied their food carriers. They thanked one another for contributing before they dispersed.

For Amer, it was the least the group could do to help those in need.

"For me, food delivery riders like us from GrabFood or FoodPanda, we can still work, and we can still move around and get our salary," Amer said.

"But there are many people who have lost their jobs, the shops can't even open, and they have no income.

"So I think we can share what we have, and at least we managed to help some people, and contribute to society.

"Previously, there was a lecturer who said that food delivery is a job without dignity, I remember him saying so in a TV show. But I think that we can now prove that we do not only have dignity, but that we can also contribute to society," Amer added.


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