Matchmaking a difference

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You can think of Omar Kinnarath as an online matchmaker.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 23/03/2020 (873 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

You can think of Omar Kinnarath as an online matchmaker.

The 40-year-old small business owner is using his social-media skills to bring Winnipeggers together — not for love, but to help each other get through the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Monday, Kinnarath created a Facebook page — Mutual Aid Society Winnipeg — dedicated to matching local people in need during the outbreak with people who have the ability and willingness to help.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Photo of Omar Kinnarath who created a Facebook page called the Mutual Aid Society Winnipeg.

“That’s the way my mom raised me,” the single father of a 10-year-old son explained. “I credit my upbringing — when someone needs help, then help. If you are able to do it, then do it. Don’t ask questions. Just be who you are and be a good person.”

The Wolseley resident’s Mutual Aid Society, launched on Monday, had more than 1,300 members signed up by noon on Friday.

When someone posted a plea for food, including pet food, in West Broadway, moments later there was a reply from someone in River Heights offering “a few extra cans of cat food and some treats (opened but still good) if you’d like — I’m in full isolation and would need someone to pick up and deliver to you.”

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Omar Kinnarath, owner of Urban 101, a clothing store at Portage Place, has created a Facebook page called the Mutual Aid Society Winnipeg.

Judging by the upbeat tone of the conversations on the Facebook page, no request for help was deemed too small, or too large.

“My husband and I are both laid off now and we are looking for help with food for us and our dogs, please,” one woman posted, a plea that was quickly greeted with suggestions for help and offers of dry dog food.

Kinnarath said he wasn’t prepared to sit around and do nothing when his clothing store, Urban 101 at Portage Place Shopping Centre, closed for at least three weeks to help tamp down the spread of the novel coronavirus.

“The reason I started this (page) is because I knew we’d see all this panic-buying and hoarding and there would be a lack of goods for people who are most vulnerable, the elderly and people with mobility issues and people dealing with health conditions,” he said.

“We knew there’d be a need and we saw groups like this pop up during different crises. During the hurricane in Puerto Rico a couple of years ago, the government wasn’t taking care of the needs of the community, so a mutual aid society sprang up to fill the need for services and general help.”

A self-described social activist, with a fondness for computers, he said the concept of mutual aid dates back to the beginning of human history.

“We all have different talents and we can use those to help people,” he said. “If you are able to help, help. If you need help, don’t be shy, ask for help.”

Based on the rapidly rising membership of the Winnipeg group, it’s a concept whose time has come as more residents hunker down at home amid the coronavirus crisis.

“As you can see from the page, it’s working,” Kinnarath said, “Dozens and dozens of people are getting help. People who need food are getting together with people who can bring it to them. It makes you want to cry. It’s fantastic.

“Another example is the hand-sanitizer shortage. One of the posters on the page — a friend of mine — had 6,000 plastic bottles lying around. He had a business a couple of years ago. He posted that he had all these bottles lying around and then, later on, another poster said, ‘Hey, I work for a distillery and we’re in the process of figuring this out and we could probably use them.’

“It shows that mutual aid works. We put the two together — a person with bottles and someone who is hoping to make hand sanitizer. It shows that once you post the need, someone will step up to fill it.”

Born in Thailand and raised in Winnipeg, Kinnarath questioned whether governments can meet the needs of everyone during a crisis of this magnitude.

“They’re definitely not doing it now,” he declared. “So people have to help each other. We hope the government is going to help, but at this very moment we’re not getting a lot of help from them.”

The bottom line is people living in a community have an obligation to step up and help during times of great need.

“We thought this was the most important thing right now — to start a mutual aid society. It’s more important than anything right now — making sure people have what they need. Food, diapers, groceries.”

He chuckled when asked if he was surprised by the reaction to the Facebook page. “I am not one bit surprised by the reaction,” he said. “I was dead certain this community would help people who are unfortunate and in need of help. I am surprised, however, at how fast it’s going.”

He also promised mutual aid would outlive the coronavirus. “It will be a place where if people are in desperate need of things, they can ask and someone can help,” he vowed.

“When things go back to semi-normal, things like this will be important. It’s not temporary. It’s going to grow. We’d like this philosophy of helping to spread around the world.”

For now, it’s a match made in cyberspace.

(Kinnarath is just one of many people going the extra mile to help others during this health crisis. We’d love to hear your stories, too. Share them at kindness@freepress.mb.ca)

doug.speirs@freepress.mb.ca

Doug Speirs

Doug Speirs
Columnist

Doug has held almost every job at the newspaper — reporter, city editor, night editor, tour guide, hand model — and his colleagues are confident he’ll eventually find something he is good at.

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