Melbourne: As bombs dropped over the city of Baghdad, a lone figure would tiptoe out the backdoor of a luxury hotel at night. After walking a few metres, Daman Shrivastav would make an abrupt stop outside some underground bunkers, handing out food packets. It was 1990 and Iraq was caught in the midst of the
, thousands had been displaced in its capital that lay in ruins.
While Shrivastav’s colleagues at the Al Rasheed hotel fled the city one by one, the 27-year-old stayed on, continuing to feed dozens of people displaced by the war on a daily basis. This year, when the
struck and stories of scarcity so familiar to him became commonplace again, Shrivastav, now 54, and a culinary arts lecturer in Melbourne, resumed his “one-man delivery service”.
This time, he is feeding international students, many of whom have lost their jobs, and with it, their sustenance in an alien land. Nearly 500 meals are prepared every week in the humble kitchen at Shrivastav’s home since March. He delivers them around the city in his car.
“The situation this year reminded me of the misery I had seen before. In Iraq, I saw people who would visit my hotel regularly for caviar beg for food. My colleagues would go home and leave overnight. People were dying. Those spared by bombs were taken in by hunger. Covid-19 stirred those memories and I wanted to do whatever was in my capacity to help those in need,” he told TOI.
Work from home and help from his wife and eight-year-old daughter has made it easier for Shrivastav to continue his charity. “We wake up earlier than usual so meals can be packed and delivered before we get busy with our daily routine,” said Shrivastav.
Others have stepped up to help too. Last month, school teacher Sarah Maric drove 50km one-way to Daman’s house with bags full of groceries and helped him cook. “I was inspired by how much he was doing for the community," she said.
Sai Kiran, a masters student at La Trobe University, who lost his job and was diagnosed with Covid-19 soon after in July was fed by food from Shrivastav’s kitchen thrice a day. “I shudder to think what would have happened to me if he wasn’t there. I had no one,” he said.
Shrivastav, a culinary arts professor is feeding international students nearly 500 meals a week
Shrivastav said he focused on international students because he understood the difficulties of starting out in a foreign land. “When I first came to
, it took me a couple of months to find a job. I walked around the city with my resume in hand,” he told TOI.
Shrivastav moved to Australia in 1995, years after he left Iraq for Jordan in 1992. “Since the dinar was devalued, I had no money left. I gave away my belongings and left for Jordan’s capital Amman where I worked as a labourer and then a fruit picker.” It was a stark contrast to the life he had lived in Baghdad as a chef managing a team of over 100 people and cooking for the likes of American boxer Mohammad Ali.
Shrivastav eventually met a Palestinian who hired him in his newly opened French restaurant. Shrivastav recalled how Hussein, the former king of Jordan, visited the eatery and liked the food so much that he gifted his specially designed watch to him.
As long as he stayed in Amman, Shrivastav’s house was open to Iraqi families, many of whom would come and stay with him for days before finding shelter in refugee camps.