Making a difference locally

How a group of women in Hamilton is inspiring the community into supporting each other.

It's Wednesday night and a nondescript building down one of Hamilton’s back streets is humming with activity. Around 30 people wait patiently as eight women stand behind a counter filled with platters of steaming hot food. Welcome to The Serve, a charitable trust in Hamilton that serves meals to low-income households in the community.

It’s a volunteer-run initiative and tonight a group of women from across the globe has gathered to make a multicultural feast. On the counter is an array of Syrian food, including biriyani, maklouba, and basbousa that’s been cooked by former refugees in the community, along with Kiwi favourites such as pasta salad. People begin to dig in and once the food is finished, the team of women starts the cleaning up, diligently washing and wiping every piece of cutlery and plate.

A big board in the kitchen shows which volunteers are responsible for each meal. N.I.S.A is written down below every Wednesday.

"It's the first time I feel like I'm helping people here."
Alaa Zaed Abdalla is a former refugee from Syria who helps N.I.S.A make food for The Serve in Hamilton (Photo: Gemma Snowdon/NZ Red Cross).

N.I.S.A, short for Nurture Inspire Support Assist, is the brainchild of two New Zealand Red Cross refugee support volunteers, Zaytoon Ebrahim and Aneesa Mahomed. It's a charitable organisation that’s working in Hamilton to support community members and empower women.

"We got our group of ladies together and came up with the name N.I.S.A, even though it’s an acronym, it’s also an Arabic word which means women," Zaytoon says. “We saw this as a super empowering name and went with it.”

There are more than 50 members of N.I.S.A, who come together to share resources and help in the community.

“There are a lot of people out there who want to do things but may not know how to go about it,” says Zaytoon. “Then there are the people who have the resources but may not have the time or people who have the time but not the resources. We offer the facilities to collaborate these and make it work.”

"We want to show that Muslim women are not stuck under our husband's heels, we are not controlled by them, and we are a force to be reckoned with."
Zaytoon Ebrahim is the co-founder of N.I.S.A and hopes to create social change (photo: Gemma Snowdon/NZ Red Cross).

N.I.S.A's work at The Serve is just the tip of the iceberg and the women are very active throughout the community, helping those in need of a hand.

"From our time as Red Cross refugee support volunteers, we continued supporting all the new refugee intakes in Hamilton by making sure every family has a month’s worth of groceries when they first arrive," says Zaytoon. “We also support Red Cross when assistance is needed.”

The following day Zaytoon and Aneesa demonstrate what they mean, jumping at the opportunity to volunteer to help a refugee-background family move to a new house.

One of their other members also brings along her family to help; they are themselves former refugees and are keen to support others who are new to the community. The teamwork is seamless as they move beds, chests, suitcases, and tables from one end of the city to the other for a single mother and her children.

"We have so much to be thankful for so our way of showing that thankfulness is to go out and help others." 
Aneesa Mahomed helping a former refugee family move house, she's the co-founder of N.I.S.A (photo: Gemma Snowdon/NZ Red Cross).

The women are obviously the major presence in N.I.S.A but the organisation is open to everyone.

"[Women] are the driving force behind N.I.S.A but our husbands are there too and they are respectfully called our sidekicks," says Zaytoon smiling. “We want to show that Muslim women are not stuck under our husband's heels, we are not controlled by them, and we are a force to be reckoned with.”

Young people are also a visible presence in their activities, from young children to students volunteering after school.

“As youth we’re always looking to get involved with the community and it’s a great opportunity we’ve been provided to give back to the wider community,” says Fareeha Humayun who is 24 years old. “We don’t have a lot of options to do that.”

"As youth, it's nice for us to be given the opportunity to give back to the community." 
Fareeha Humayun is one of the younger members of N.I.S.A, helping around the community (photo: Gemma Snowdon/NZ Red Cross).

For now, N.I.S.A is content creating social change on a local level, but Zaytoon and Aneesa have big dreams for the organisation.

"We have a global vision and are hoping to become and international organisation involved in whichever way we can support humankind," Zaytoon says earnestly.

If you're inspired by the women of N.I.S.A, why not check out some volunteering opportunities on our website.