Advocating for Inclusion in the Cafeteria and Beyond

Updated: Sep 26

As our cities welcome more migrants and refugees from around the world, how do we ensure all kids are honoured and celebrated in their cultural stories? One place to seek transformation is at our local elementary schools’ cafeterias.

Muslim woman community organizing Downtown Eastside Vancouver
Yasmeen, a young mom with a passion for community organizing, partners with Wendy, Servant Partners staff, to advocate for the food needs of Muslim students at the local elementary school in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver.

September 2022 Update:


"Now our kids feel like there is a place at school for them." - Yasmeen

We are thrilled to share our win from this work of advocacy alongside Muslim families for more vegetarian and halal-friendly meals at their neighbourhood elementary school, where 30% students are Muslims: the Vancouver School Board has responded by initiating a pilot project to offer vegetarian options everyday!


This is a big step for students to feel seen in their culture and included by eating together with other students, while planting seeds of hope of how God's shalom can come through collective power and persistence. It has been a joy to witness Yasmeen's growing confidence and leadership and this practical expression of justice in the face of discrimination our Muslim neighbours have experienced. We have been invited to present to the school board in November, and we are hopeful for our impact to grow in our community, and perhaps even to other schools with similar needs in the city.

“I'm excited to advocate for more and invite others in my community to believe in our power together to change something. You can’t clap with one hand, but we can make something beautiful with all our hands working together.”
 

Many Canadians from non-dominant cultural backgrounds have grown up experiencing exclusion and racism in their cafeterias: Chinese students being teased for eating noodles because they look like “worms”, or Korean and Indian students being shamed for the aroma of kimchi and curries. Meanwhile, bringing PB&J sandwiches and meatballs to school represent what it means to “be Canadian”. These experiences compound the narrative of ‘otherness’ and rejection towards students of colour, resulting in emotional wounds, divided communities and perpetuating dominant, Western standards as the only acceptable norm.


While school meals are an attempt to create equality at school across class and culture, most school meals still cater for dominant cultural preferences. Is it possible to create a menu where children from all backgrounds see their culture and identity reflected in it, while learning about others?


The Downtown Eastside of Vancouver is home to many families with immigrant and refugee backgrounds. 30% of one of the neighbourhood elementary school’s students identify as Muslim and with halal food needs, but four out of five school meals each week are not halal, kosher or Hindu-friendly.


"I’m upset that there is no halal food at school, because I have to bring my own food and it's always cold by lunch. I want to eat together with my friends. " - A., grade 6 Muslim student

Yasmeen is a young mother of four and a leader in the local Syrian community in our neighbourhood. Her family fled Syria and arrived in Canada as refugees. Even though she is still laying down roots and learning how to raise her family in this new context, God has put in her a passionate heart to gather her neighbours to work for the good of our community. Together in the past, we’ve distributed PPE during the pandemic, invited neighbours to cultural celebrations to foster cross-cultural understanding, and cooked delicious Syrian meals for local drop-in centres to meet the need for dignifying meals.


One day over post-dinner tea, she shared with me the need for halal meals at school. It’s a frequent topic of discussion with other Muslim mothers and that they share a sense of hopelessness. I reflected back to her what I’ve observed over the years in her passion to advocate for her community’s needs, for both Muslims and non-Muslims. Her eyes brightened and her composure lifted as she shared again her desire to gather her neighbours to create positive change.


We decided to create a community petition to send to the Vancouver School Board (VSB) and Yasmin set off to talk to other neighbourhood parents and get their signatures. Some were skeptical asking,“Will anything ever change?”, but she encouraged them to try and lend their voice to advocate for the community’s needs.



As we typed away in her home, her kids were curious about the process and we involved them by asked them what they wanted to see at school to include in our letter to ask for more halal-friendly meals. They say that everyone loves mac and cheese, so in our letter we suggested they serve more mac and cheese. Once our email was done, Yasmeen excitedly clicks “send” with a proud smile spreading across her face. We held tight for a response.


The VSB writes back with gratitude for sharing this need and our ideas with them, and assures us that our feedback will be taken into account as they draft a 10-year food vision to create systemic changes across the school district. We are still waiting for a response around our specific ask for at least two halal-friendly meals per week, but the seeds of community power and possibility has made its way deeper into Yasmeen’s heart and her family’s:


“I am so happy they replied, it shows that they care (about Muslims). My kids tell me, "Mommy, we are so proud of you for advocating for our needs!" I hope the VSB will listen to our feedback and make changes so our kids can feel like they belong.”
“We have to do something, if we don’t do anything, nothing will change. Here, the system is not like back home. Here, maybe if we do something together, speak up and try, those with power will do something.” - Yasmeen

Muslim women cooking Downtown Eastside Vancouver volunteer
Wendy and Yasmeen cook for a drop-in meal alongside other community volunteers

The next time I visit, the kids ask about the petition again. We talk about what they want to see at school and the possibilities, and I imagine out loud to Yasmeen’s kids - “Wouldn’t it be amazing if one day, your mom can be the consultant for meals at the school board? That all the kids at school can enjoy her delicious food?”


Her son A.’s eyes widen with wonder - “You mean, perhaps we can have jaj (chicken) and rice at school?! That’s my favourite!”


Inshallah, I tell him, God willing. Indeed I hope and pray that God’s will of shalom be done among this community; that kids and families of all cultural backgrounds are seen, celebrated and honoured. That our kids will grow up delighting in juicy dumplings, tender Syrian roasted chicken, and aromatic curries alongside creamy mac and cheese. I rejoice that it is already happening through developing Yasmeen’s leadership, community power - and God’s heart for shalom in our school cafeterias!


If you are curious to learn more about seeking shalom alongside the Syrian newcomer community in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, please connect with Servant Partners staff Wendy (wendy.auyeung@servantpartners.org) and you can donate towards this work of community transformation here.

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