Churchill Azad Akaloo, 74, the businessman who provided a roof over the heads of 78 Cuban refugees and their families, strongly believes that his life will not be in vain “if I could help somebody”.
Akaloo, of Cunupia, said that he has been helping people in need over the past decades and emphasised that he does it “not for fame or recognition” but simply because he genuinely has a compassion for those “deserving” of help, most importantly, because of what his Islamic teachings have instilled in him.
“All the good books tell you, even the Q'uran, if people are in a strange country and they are stranded you have to help them and that is how I look at it…I don’t follow what people say. My living must not be in vain,” Akaloo said.
With tears in his eyes, Akaloo recalled the “dirt poor” background which he came from and the hard labour he remembered his mother performing just to provide for her seven children, he being the only son. “I came from a very poor and humble family. When we were young all my mother had was a little rice and sometimes she would fry it up with a little onion and that is what we had to eat.
“My father used to ride bicycle and sell when we started to make curry powder for a penny a pack. While my father selling, my mother doing hard labour by cutting rice. They both worked hard and I too, because I used to ride bicycle with my father and sell for us to be here and what we are today…I also used to work taxi,” an emotional Akaloo said.
Akaloo said when his father fell ill in 1960, he was the one to take over the sales side of the business. “By that time my father had borrowed money from his sister and a neighbour to buy an old van for $300, so when he got sick, I moved around with the van and worked the business. I was a young man with ambition then and still today. Now, I still like to put my hand in something that is being done. I am not the office type to sit behind a desk.”
Akaloo has committed himself to helping people over the years without expecting anything in return. “Every month I donate hampers to 50 families, most of whom do not know where the hampers are coming from and that’s just it. The only reason that I am in all this news today it’s because of what I did for the Cuban refugees and it reached the media.
“A lot of people come for help but they don’t need help, they just want. I like to help people who in need just like the Cubans…they were out on the streets, no food, no water, they cannot work so one of them called for help and this is why I went and help,” Akaloo said.
'I want nothing in return'
To his detractors who believe that he may have a personal agenda by housing the Cuban refugees, maybe for cheap labour, Akaloo said, “There is no personal agenda in housing the refugees, those people who are saying maybe know more than I do. I have to put money out and house them and give them everything and I want and expect nothing in return. I don’t have any personal agenda, not even labour from them for free…nothing.”
Akaloo is also responsible for erecting the Warrenville Masjid and Learning Centre that’s currently utilised by Muslim families in the area.
Asked if all his charitable work is seen as blessings from Allah, Akaloo humbly replied, “I think so, blessings, if I’m allowed.”
Akaloo is the father of four children—three boys and a girl. He is a man of ambition with a strong spiritual background. “I wanted to live a good life and a life where my children will follow suit and their children and the generations to follow.”
Despite the poverty he experienced as a little boy, Akaloo kept focused on his education at the primary level and was able to cop two scholarships and move on to secondary school at Presentation College in Chaguanas.
Akaloo pleaded with young people in society to keep out of trouble. “Keep out of trouble. Don’t drink and gamble. Try to get a regular and honest job, doh matter how small the money is, you can go further with that, especially when you save. For instance, I never bought food outside because I looked at it like this, instead of buying a box of food, why not buy a whole chicken that could feed my entire family. In that way, I saved lots of money.”
Akaloo’s daughter, Alisha, has described her father as a “genuine person, kind, humble, and a selfless individual”. She said, “The values my father taught me growing up I have extended to my children. I am just like that today, I help people and don’t even think about myself sometimes. My father is just so genuine and he is not well now but he just keeps going and going.”
Fixing up the warehouse
Businessman Churchill Azad Akaloo gave up one of his warehouses in Cunupia on November 23 as a temporary safe haven for the Cuban refugees until arrangements are made to move them out of T&T by the United Nations (UN).
Akaloo said he was moved to tears when he first realised that the Cuban nationals who were seeking asylum and holding refugee status made the desperate decision to brave the elements to hold a silent protest outside of the UN House at Chancery Lane, Port-of-Spain.
He made a personal decision to at least provide hot meals and water for them on a daily basis as they kept up with their stance of a 24/7 protest over a three-week period.
This same group was arrested by police on November 16 and charged for obstruction. They all pleaded not guilty initially but then changed it to guilty when they re-appeared before Magistrate Sanara Toon-Mc Quilkin in the Port-of-Spain Magistrates’ Court on November 20. They were sentenced to two days in jail.
However, when they were released onto the streets, the Cuban refugees had no place of refuge and decided to look to Akaloo for help.
It was at this point, Akaloo related, that he quickly began to think of a way and means for them. “The only thing I could have come up with was this warehouse that we kept items in for storage and for recycling. I asked them if they would be willing to clean it and fix it up and do whatever that needs to be done to make themselves comfortable and to transform it to a ‘liveable’ condition and they agreed.”
The refugees, all of whom have their refugee certificates and other relevant documents, moved in and worked tirelessly in the cleanup operations. After days of sleeping on cardboards, several other good samaritans chipped in and bought mattresses for them.
Last Wednesday, during a visit, some of the skilled Cubans were engaged in putting up concrete blocks to build an annex to the warehouse which will accommodate a main kitchen and laundry room for them. Some of them were also seen doing electrical work in two separate rooms of the warehouse.