'You're Saving Lives': The Volunteers Helping Syrians By Delivering Chocolate Cake

By delivering cake through Ramadan, Arusa is among those helping raise millions for refugees.

Muslims across the country have been uniting this Ramadan to help those impacted by the conflict in Syria – and once more, they’ve been using cake to do it.

Arusa Mahmood, 23, is one of 2,000 volunteers across the UK who devote their time to Islamic Relief’s Cake Campaign. Each Sunday over Ramadan, she picks up a batch of chocolate fudge cakes from a baker in Birmingham, and then delivers them to addresses across the city and beyond. The profits from each cake go to the charity’s ongoing Syria Appeal.

Now in its seventh year, #Cakes4Syria initially began as a small-scale volunteering project in Bradford and swiftly grew into something much bigger – a UK-wide project across the likes of Leicester, Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester, Newcastle, London, Cardiff and Glasgow.

Mahmood knows just how infectious the spirit of giving is: what began as a recommendation from her friend has now become a huge part of her life. Working a seven-day week – five as a customer service adviser, two as a volunteer – can be draining, not least when you’re fasting for Ramadan, and not eating or drinking anything throughout the day. “I get absolutely exhausted,” says Mahmood. But she’s also committed to seeing it through.

Arusa Mahmood

The delivery service is simple and popular, with the chocolate cake providing the perfect treat for Muslims to share when they break their fast at iftar, the meal eaten after sunset. But it also provides the perfect way to give back, which Mahmood says is what the spirit of Ramadan is all about.

“Everybody loves cake,” she says.“You have something to look forward to when you break your fast, and you’re saving lives with just a piece of cake. It might seem like nothing, but it’s huge.”

Since 2013, more than 125,000 cakes have been sold, with 1.75m slices eaten and £1.25m raised to support those affected by the Syrian civil war, which began eight years ago.

Last week, Mahmood says they had just short of 900 deliveries in Birmingham. “Some addresses have two or three cakes per household,” she notes. “But that’s [still] 750 individual drop-offs. 750 individual doors that are knocked. We had 1,500 to deliver in a week, once.”

The chocolate fudge cake delivered across the country.
Islamic Relief
The chocolate fudge cake delivered across the country.

Mahmood began volunteering in 2014, when a friend mentioned that the project needed drivers. Even though she couldn’t drive at the time, she accompanied her mum on drop-offs – and then, a year later when she passed her driving test, Arusa shifted her volunteering commitment up a gear.

Five years later, she helps to manage the project in Birmingham on behalf of Islamic Relief. What began as four hours of volunteering on a Sunday has turned into day-long shifts on both Saturday and Sunday, and Mahmood has now devoted more than a thousand hours of her time, participating in meetings, organising schedules, picking up cakes and, of course, delivering them – sometimes to regulars who order every week.

“When I first got involved, it was just about delivering a cake,” she says. “But as I started doing a bit of research and seeing what Islamic Relief does, it really motivated me [to do more].”

“Although delivering a cake is all we do, it actually makes a change to those who are less fortunate,” she adds. “We’re helping those who have practically nothing.

“It’s just knowing that these little actions are making a difference to the lives of those in need.”

Another Cake Campaign volunteer.
Islamic Relief
Another Cake Campaign volunteer.

Volunteering is important, for Mahmood, who says the people of Syria have, in recent times, been “forgotten” by much of society. As of December 2018, more than half a million Syrian people had been killed or gone missing, according to The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Her devotion to the cause isn’t without its challenges, though, and she notes that she rarely gets to spend time with her family during Ramadan. “There are times when I want to sit and cry because I’m so tired and drained,” she admits, “but look at the innocent children, the women, the men, the families who have nothing.

“This little bit of running around makes me want to cry because I’m so tired, but just think about those who have nothing to eat, who don’t have a roof over their head, who are worried constantly thinking they’re going to get killed.

“My little bit of exhaustion is nothing compared to theirs.”