There was a definite festive mood at Pioneer Memorial Park on Easter Monday night. Lights were strung between the trees, music was playing from portable speakers and the scent of barbecued meats was wafting through the air as local residents gathered for an Easter celebration dinner that engaged all of their senses.
Those sleeping rough or doing it tough in Liverpool and surrounding areas were treated to an Easter feast by Heaven on Earth, a volunteer-run charity organised under the auspices of Our Lady of Lebanon Co-Cathedral.
They were welcomed by the Maronite Bishop of Australia, Bishop Antoine-Charbel Tarabay, who told those gathered that it was a privilege to be there to serve those gathered as brothers and sisters. “Tonight is not about giving you some food,” he said. “It’s about love.” The Bishop addressed the group first in English and then in Arabic, for the benefit of a number of non-English speaking refugees from Iraq and Syria who were also in attendance.
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For the last two-and-a-half years, the Heaven on Earth group has been providing a home-cooked meal and some comradery to some of the city’s most vulnerable. The initiative was founded by Robert Albayeh who, after meeting a homeless man in Parramatta’s Prince Alfred Park and listening to his story, made a commitment to take a meal to the homeless in the park at least one night each week.
Nicknamed ‘the Pizza Man’, Albayeh his wife Josephine and their three children would share a pizza with Parramatta’s rough sleepers. They did this as a family for three years before reaching out for more help.
Now, between 80 and 100 volunteers provide more than 500 meals for the homeless each week in Parramatta, Blacktown and Liverpool, and offer support to Syrian and Iraqi refugees living locally. Their mission has expanded overseas, with similar meals being held in Suva, Fiji. The group is 100 per cent funded by donations, mainly provided by the volunteers and members of their local parishes.
Local organiser Nokra Sakr said that the mission of the group was to spread the love of Christianity through words, actions and prayers. Sakr was praised as a “light” by the locals, who described him as a man who will go out of his way to help anyone in need.
Lurnea resident George is in his 70s and has been attending the Monday night meals for about two years. He described the Heaven on Earth volunteers as a tremendous group who not only provided not only “first-class food,” but clothing, jackets and hampers of food.
“They are magnificent and they come around and talk to you to see if you’ve got any problems,” George said. “If you need a washing machine or a bed or one of those packs you need when you sleep out, they try and they get them for you… If they can do anything for you, they will.”
Liverpool local Stella said how easy it was for people to end up homeless. Once a homeowner, a few bad investment ideas saw her sell her home and then evicted from her rental property. She said that there was very little help to prevent people from becoming homeless, and no support once you were. She was grateful, however, for the assistance of the Heaven on Earth crew.
Stella said that that once she had found accommodation in affordable housing, she had mentioned in passing to one of the volunteers that she was in need of a bed. A couple of weeks later, she received a call from the same volunteer, who had sourced a donated bed, mattress, new Manchester and even an electric blanket.
Following the main meal, volunteers served desserts, handed out Easter eggs and provided with food hampers to take home. As the group disbanded, arms full with takeaway containers of food, extra desserts and hampers, the volunteers quickly packed up, ready to return the next Monday.