“I slept hungry in the park, and now when I see people who are hungry and homeless, I know what they are feeling,” says Ashish Sood, 33. Today, the father-of-one has a thriving business, a loving family and the support of a grateful community, but the memory of those days and weeks – when he went to sleep with a rumbling stomach – are the driving force behind his personal initiative to help the homeless.
Originally from Punjab, Ashish arrived here in 2007. Having Googled the country, he was impressed by its beauty and applied for, and received, a student visa. However, when he landed in Brisbane, he faced the reality of his situation. “I didn’t know anybody when I arrived. I had nowhere to stay and I didn’t have money on me,” he recalls. For those first weeks, Ashish slept in a park, before moving on to a Brisbane bus station. Hunger was a constant.
He eventually moved on to Central Station, where he later met another Indian student. Hearing that Ashish had nowhere to go and no cash, the student invited him to temporarily move into his share house on the Gold Coast, despite having no space. (There were eight young men living under the one roof.) “I had to sleep in the kitchen,” Ashish recalls. “So I was cleaning the kitchen every day and then sleeping there.”
That initial act of kindness, of being offered a safe place to live, meant that he could go out and find work. From there, Ashish’s life in Australia blossomed. “I slowly met a few more friends and then we moved to another [share] house,” he explains. “I was a hospitality student and I got a job in the industry. I was working in the kitchen, slowly making money and paying my school fees.” Still, “as a student in an overseas country, I struggled a lot.”
After more than a decade working in the food business, in 2017 Ashish and his wife Raginifinally fulfilled a lifelong dream, and opened their Indian restaurant, Ginger and Garlic, in Brisbane’s CBD. With the memory of those initial hungry days in Australia indelibly printed in his mind, Ashish decided to offer free meals to the homeless every night.
“I’ve always wanted to help the homeless because I was one of them,” he says. “They can come here and have free food and water every single day, 365 days a year. I’m happy to provide for anybody who is hungry and on the streets.”
On average, Ashish says, he and his staff now serve between 10 and 15 homeless people every night, after 10.30pm. On rare days when no-one asks for dinner, he bundles up packages of naan, samosas, pappadums and curries and leaves them on a nearby bench where homeless people often sleep.
While a warm meal is gratefully received, Ashish also offers something harder to find: connection and friendship, and he is now on first-name terms with his regulars. “We’ve got Josh and Ryan. We’ve got Rachel and Nathan and one mum, who has two kids. Even when they come during the day, I give food to them because sometimes they don’t want to eat at nighttime.”
These customers are highly appreciative of not only his generosity, but his warmth. “They are very grateful, they are always giving me blessings and they always say, ‘Thanks Ash,’” he explains.
The restaurateur says he is also proud that he is not squandering food. “I think I’m doing a good thing because wasting food is so bad,” he says. “Rather than waste our food, somebody is having a full tummy and a good sleep.”
In turn, local businesses and the wider community have thrown their support behind Ashish and Ragini, with groups of co-workers from nearby offices regularly buying meals from Ginger and Garlic.
He believes that giving back and helping those less fortunate is part of the national character. “I’ve been living here for 12 years and it’s a great culture. Australians always support each other, they always care about each other, no matter if you’re rich or poor, no matter where you come from, they always help each other.”
However, there is still so much more work to be done, he says. “There are a lot of people sleeping in cars or in parks, and it’s heartbreaking. If everyone does a small bit, I think we can do better on the issue of homelessness.”
Ashish’s wife Raginiwould like to see both governments and NGOs think more creatively about how to help the homeless. “They should consider homeless people as humans, with the right to work,” she says. “It is very important to treat them equal to other people so that they will get motivated. We are all equal and we have the right to work.”
Still, the business owner and Dad is optimistic. “If everyone does a small bit, I think we can better help people on the streets. I think if we are all in this together, we can definitely decrease the numbers of homeless in Australia.”
Ashish and Ragini’s daughter,Soha, is only one, but in the future, her father is adamant about one particular lesson he will pass on to her. “When she’s old enough, I will be teaching her to always help others and to always be grateful for what she has.”