It is 8am in the vibrant South Asian high street of Alum Rock, a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood in Birmingham, the United Kingdom’s second-largest city.
Removing the draped blue tarpaulin held in place by several upside-down crates to cover his stall, Abdul Nafi, 31, artistically arranges fresh and juicy looking fruit and vegetables along his wooden structured, shop-front table. He sells bowls of tomatoes and peppers, apples and plums from £1 (around $1.35); the display looks inviting from a considerable distance, with more boxes of fresh produce stocked behind in the shop.
“Here, the community doesn’t get their fruit and vegetables from supermarkets, they prefer to get it from stands like mine,” he says, also indicating three other stallholders down the street. “If we decide to stop working, where will people get the ripest and cheapest produce in the area?”
Hazel-eyed and smiling with a light, trimmed beard and neatly cut hair, Nafi explains that he arrived in the UK as an asylum seeker in 2010 from the Paktia province in the east of Afghanistan, a place far removed from the city he lives in today. Paktia has long been a target for the Taliban and many people have been attacked and killed there. Nafi is reluctant to dwell on the life he has left behind him in Afghanistan, but says he was unemployed and unable to feed his family. A year after he arrived here, he was granted asylum and began working as a fruit and vegetable trader in Birmingham. Now that he has found a stabler life, his family survives on the money he sends home from the UK.
And now, on the front line of an epidemic, he is considered a “key worker” – the UK’s term for people with vital jobs to keep the country going during the pandemic – valiantly reporting to his stall site daily, in an area which has been hard hit by coronavirus, along with other largely South Asian neighbourhoods in Birmingham, including Sparkhill and Sparkbrook.
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Despite belonging to a member of an ethnic minority group in the UK with a higher risk of suffering complications from COVID-19, and working without any personal protective equipment (PPE), Nafi continues to provide his community with vital vitamins and minerals that count towards the five-a-day.
Since the national lockdowns began last March, the term “key worker” emerged to define the people who deliver essential services to the public. Alongside the respected healthcare workers, the UK government’s list of key workers also includes people who are involved in food production, processing, distribution, sale and delivery.
PPE for non-healthcare workers has not been deemed necessary by the UK government’s Health and Safety Executive. Instead, the government says on its website, “practising good hand hygiene and social distancing are key to minimising the risk of infection”.
But, for fruit and vegetable stall-handlers like Nafi, the established rules of physical distancing are difficult to follow as these workers are always in close proximity to other people.
With a population of 25,487, the inner suburb of Alum Rock fills quickly with shoppers each morning. As customers begin to arrive and surround Nafi’s stall, they squeeze, smell and tap the fresh produce before making their final selections.
The decrease in customers since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus last year has meant less income and Nafi worries about being able to afford more sophisticated personal protection against transmission of the virus.
“Since I’ve noticed supermarket cashiers working behind protective plastic shields, I am thinking to also install one in front of my stall,” he says.
“But, before the pandemic, I was making sales of £200 daily, and now it has dropped to £80. During the first lockdown, I didn’t even have the money to pay for the rent on my house. When everyone was trying to help each other, my landlord was constantly demanding rent. I had to borrow from a few friends.”
Images of home
Browsing the colourful, stacked produce, a mother wheeling two small children in a buggy arrives at Nafi’s stall. She is dressed in an ivory headscarf and a matching gown of soft material falling in loose graceful folds, and carefully picks bowls filled with fresh, loose okra and dark-green, wrinkly karela (bitter melon).
“Can you add an extra karela,” she asks politely as Nafi helps her pack her selection into a bag. He adds one extra.
Alongside boxes of melons, mangos, pineapples and other tropical fruits, the shop-front stall also displays vegetables not so often seen in the UK, like the karela. For shoppers and passers-by, this evokes the familiar image of “homeland” while, for others, it is an opportunity to try something new.
The Afghan community here is relatively new compared with other ethnic groups. So far, they say, their community fellows and customers seem to have welcomed them.
Taj Hussain, 65, a resident, reflects on how the Afghan stalls are prominent features on the Alum Rock high street.
“These stalls are a site of social interaction, out of doors. They allow you to connect with other people, something which is currently not possible indoors. They are a focal point for the Alum Rock community to speak with each other in a public space while buying their fruit and veg,” he says.
“The Afghans know those who live near, they are recognised and welcomed by local shopkeepers, the elderly and other friends in the community.”
Hussain often buys fruit and vegetables from the stalls here, wandering between them to see who has the freshest items on any given day.
Alamgir Khan, 45, a local Pakistani customer, also welcomes the “bargains” offered by Afghan sellers.
“It is natural that customers bargain on costs. But here, there is no need,” he says. “We are already getting more for less. Even then, as I shop regularly from my Afghan brothers, they always give me extra, sometimes an orange or even a banana. They are all like my brothers. They are aware of this. We are neighbours, Pakistan and Afghanistan.”
Research by This is Money, the personal finance website, shows that shoppers save 32 percent by buying fruit and vegetables from market stalls compared with supermarkets. So, as panic-buyers emptied the shelves of larger supermarkets and concerns grew about social distancing in the shopping aisles earlier in 2020, the people of Alum Rock found their five-a-day outdoor stalls a central part of community life.