It was Nisfu Syaaban, also known as the Night of Emancipation, in 2014.
Muslims believe this is the night when their fortunes for the coming year are decided. Among other things, they read their Quran and pray for blessings, salvation and forgiveness from Allah.
Ms Shereen Naaz Charles Syariff, 29, had just finished her evening prayers and was reading the Holy Book when memories of her late grandmother overwhelmed her.
“She died the year before. She used to do a lot of charity work and it always involved food. Every Ramadan, she cooked for needy people she knew and also donated food to mosques,” says the 29-year-old educator. “I thought of people who didn’t have a lot to eat during the fasting month. I thought of children in children’s homes who didn’t have parents to cook for them.”
A conviction seized her: Like her grandmother, she would help people with food.
That was how the foodie came up with the idea of Eiding The Feast, a charity bake where all the proceeds go towards providing meals for children in charity homes during the month of Ramadan.
In the first year, she rounded up 15 of Singapore’s most famous halal home bakers and raised more than $5,000 to provide meals for 20 days for the denizens of Pertapis Children’s Home.
Last year, 20 bakers joined her cause, raising more than $8,000 in just over three hours. The funds were spent on meals for children in homes run by Pertapis and Jamiyah, as well as food packs for 600 needy families.
It is obvious, from the sparkle in her eyes and the grin in her voice, that she is chuffed about Eiding The Feast, which she runs with her cousin, polytechnic lecturer Yasmeen Shariff, 28, and good friend, university lecturer Lye Kit Ying, 30.
It is her way of giving back to society and community; she also wants, she says, to be the best version of herself, both in this life and the Hereafter.
“I’ve been quite fortunate, I come from a very stable family and I’m better off than many people who really struggle,” says the eldest of three children of an operations manager and a nurse manager.
Her caring, empathetic side surfaced early. Her mother – now in gerontology nursing – had worked in different hospitals with stints in units ranging from intensive care to the cancer ward.
“When I was young, my father would pick her up from work and I would tag along. Sometimes, she would introduce me to some of the elderly patients.”
Even as a little girl, she realised that a smile and a handshake could help to make the sick and elderly feel a little better. That is why she kept going back to the wards although the speed at which the sick deteriorated sometimes spooked her.
“There has always been a part of me which makes me want to connect with other people,” says the former student of Yangzheng Primary and Ang Mo Kio Secondary.
Bubbly with an infectious congeniality, she held many leadership positions – student councillor, president of the drama club – in school.
“I’ve always been a leader. I like to take charge and plan things. I guess I’m a little bossy,” she says with a grin.
Hitting the books took a backseat to sports and other extra-curricular activities. She did very badly for her O level preliminaries, failing a couple of subjects and scoring a dismal 32 points for her six best subjects.
“My teacher told my father: ‘If Shereen does not pass her O levels and make it to junior college, her highest qualifications would be PSLE.’ That was the tightest slap I ever had.”
Her parents got her a maths tutor.
“Immediately, I got a distinction. And I passed the O levels with 14 points and made it to Yishun Junior College,” she said, laughing.
A bigger crisis of confidence awaited her in junior college. She had to repeat her first year when she failed maths again. The embarrassment was hard to shake off.
Her morale took a further hit one day when she did badly in an English literature test. A teacher spotted her sobbing alone in the canteen and came over to speak to her.
“He said: ‘It’s not the end. You have failed but it doesn’t define who you are. You just have to pick yourself up and make sure you don’t do the same thing again.'”
Shaking her head, she says: “He was so different from the teacher who told my parents that my highest qualifications would be PSLE if I didn’t pass my O levels.”
The pep talk did her good. Her A level results were good enough to get her into Nanyang Technological University (NTU), where she read English literature.
In NTU, a rolling apple helped to open the doors to a new world and new friends.
“One day, I saw an apple rolling on the floor. I picked it up and passed it back to the owner. We started talking and she introduced me to this group of girls who knew what they wanted and set high standards for themselves. They did not just limit themselves to the resources given to them, they went out and looked for more.”
They motivated her to be disciplined and taught her how to study and play smart.
“It’s not difficult to achieve what you want. You just have to know what your goals are and find the right environment to help you achieve them.”
She made the Dean’s List and was also chief editor of NTU’s student- run campus newspaper, The Nanyang Chronicle.
At the behest of her mother, she applied to join the teaching profession after graduation although she was hoping to become a reporter.
After getting her diploma in education, she became a teacher at a neighbourhood school in the north in 2012.
She came into contact with students from all backgrounds, including at-risk youths from dysfunctional families.
She had her share of challenging students, including a girl who refused to talk to her for a year.
“I would try to engage her every day but she just would not respond. She wasn’t rude, she just didn’t talk to me and I just couldn’t stand being ignored.
“I later found out that she had family issues and was very angry and because I was the newest figure in her life, she took it out on me.”
The teacher, however, did not give up despite the stony silence and even alerted another colleague to help the student.
“One year later, there was a complete change. She started answering questions, and carrying my books.”
Ms Shereen gets up, goes into the room of her four-room HDB flat in Yishun and brings out a laminated jigsaw featuring a photo of her and a young girl, and a handwritten message.
“That’s her,” she says.
Her voice grows shaky as she starts to read random sentences from the message such as ‘No matter how badly I’ve treated you, you’ve never left me hanging’ and ‘I can’t describe my gratitude…”
“That sums up why I love working with students,” she says, as tears start rolling down her cheeks. “There are days when they are terrible and make you want to tear your hair out. But when they are calm and not bogged down by their problems, they don’t forget to let you know how you made them feel.”
Now a polytechnic student, the girl has become firm friends with Ms Shereen and is a volunteer with Eiding The Feast.
“I keep in touch with many of my students and quite a few of them volunteer at my charity bakes,” says Ms Shereen, who was deployed to teacher-training a couple of years ago.
In many ways, Eiding The Feast was inspired by her students.
“While I’ve always liked the idea of giving back to society and community, the feeling became stronger when I became a teacher. Kids and youngsters have so much potential but they also have a long road ahead of them,” she says.
Food was a natural part of the charity equation for Ms Shereen who used to write a food blog with Ms Lye, a vegetarian, chronicling their love for food, coffee and cakes.
To get Eiding The Feast off the ground in 2014, she started trawling through Instagram accounts to suss out popular home bakers such as Hipster Bakes, @whyhellohid, Eihnaa Bakes, Tangerine Macaron and Grato.
“I told them what we were doing, I said we would provide the space and that they just needed to prepare their bakes and donate the proceeds. I told them not to bake more than what they wanted to give,” she says.
Next, she knocked on the door of nearly every establishment in Arab Street, asking them for a free space to conduct her charity bake.
Many turned her down but Working Title Cafe said yes to her request. More than 1,000 people turned up for the event, splurging more than $5,000 to snap up all that was on sale in just two hours.
“We initially planned to supply just 10 days of meals to Pertapis Children’s Home but raised enough to supply meals for 20 days,” says Ms Shereen, who forked out $1,000 of her own money to stage the event and on special thank-you aprons for the bakers.
Last year’s Eiding The Feast held at Al Qudwah Academy in Pahang Street was even more successful, attracting a long queue an hour before it opened and raising more than $8,000 in just three hours. As entry levy, shoppers brought a tin of condensed milk, which was later bundled with other daily necessities and distributed to 600 needy families.
“I hope to rally 30 bakers this year and raise $10,000. We would like to sponsor meals for five children’s homes,” says Ms Shereen, whose husband is an engineer.
Her dream is to turn Eiding The Feast into a twice-a-year carnival, where every baker will have her own table. She also wants to help other needy communities.
“For now, we focus on Muslim homes during fasting month. But my dream is to move beyond this and help other people in need soon.”