Ethiopian and Eritrean seniors latest to seek help accessing food from Calgary support group

Ethiopian foods at Umoja Community Mosaic’s food bank. The organization delivers food to people in need all over the city. (Dan McGarvey/CBC - image credit)
Ethiopian foods at Umoja Community Mosaic’s food bank. The organization delivers food to people in need all over the city. (Dan McGarvey/CBC - image credit)

A grassroots Calgary outreach organization that helps immigrants access food and a long list of other supports says it's seeing, for the first time, an influx of seniors who are struggling to afford groceries.

Umoja Community Mosaic, which runs a food bank in the southwest, says it's seeing more groups they've not been in contact with before who are now calling, desperate for help as inflation and the rising cost of food becomes too much to bear.

The organization helps immigrant and low-income families settle and integrate into communities all over the city.

A big part of their work is helping families access culturally appropriate and traditional foods they use to cook daily meals with, including different types of flour and teff, which is a fine grain used to make common Ethiopian dishes like enegra.

It's the food they grew up with and it's what they feed their families here.

Along with regular supermarket shopping, these items are now becoming out of reach for many people with already strained budgets unable to stretch any further.

Dan McGarvey/CBC
Dan McGarvey/CBC

"I got a call one morning saying we had around 17 seniors gathered at our building who had come looking for food," said Abby Taye, a support counsellor with Umoja who speaks several languages used by Ethiopian and Eritreans, including Amharic and Tigrinya.

"Then my phone calls went all week, from different seniors. I called a friend with another organization and she said to expect more in the coming weeks," said Taye.

Taye says the seniors are especially in need of Ethiopian food items like different types of flour, which they can no longer afford, along with other groceries. She says they were apologetic — and coming forward for help was a last resort for them.

"They said, 'we're sorry, we don't usually do this but we cannot afford to buy food,'" said Taye.

"For me, it's very close to home seeing seniors who are from where I'm from crying. It's hard to ask for food, so I'm sad, to be honest," she said.

Taye says it's not easy for a small, grassroots organization reliant on donations from the public to buy the food it uses in its hampers.

Umoja Community Mosaic started in 2010 as a soccer club called Soccer Without Boundaries, set up for immigrant kids from places like Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Rwanda and Afghanistan, to name just a few, run by Jean Claude Munyezamu.

Now it's a full-blown outreach program helping new Canadians adjust to their new lives and communities, offering food for families in need, laptop loans, mental health supports, tutoring and other resources.

Dan McGarvey/CBC
Dan McGarvey/CBC

"We have a waiting list which has been trending in the last couple of months," said Nurishah Dharamsi, an anti-racism co-ordinator at Umoja who also supports its programming and community outreach work.

"This situation with the Ethiopian seniors is something we're used to. We get referrals every day now for emergency food hampers," said Dharamsi.

"It's worrying but we know the pandemic exposed a deep structural gap in the food system for a lot of newcomers and families who can't access regular food banks," she said.

Dharamsi says their focus is on providing culturally appropriate foods in a dignified way, through a delivery service, providing participating families with two hampers per month, worth around $60.

She says seniors are especially vulnerable and have additional needs like medications, accessibility and dietary requirements.

She says as well as fielding emergency situations, like the recent influx of Ethiopian and Eritrean seniors with empty fridges, there's a growing waiting list for others in need of help.

"Every month, we have to prioritize where we allocate resources and much-needed help," said Dharamsi.

She says their entire food operation relies on the generosity of private donors.

"We're a very small organization with a very large impact."