Four cousins honor the legacy of their grandparents by feeding and caring for people experiencing homelessness in Austin.

Story and photos by Camille Wheeler

COVID-19, Food Security, Housing, Volunteering
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Several times a week, including nights after work, Mimi Ibrahim-Kassiba and Roda Ibrahim drive their North Austin neighborhood and surrounding areas, looking for members of the homeless community who require immediate assistance.

The sisters search at intersections, medians, and beneath highway bridges on these scouting trips, stopping at tents and campsites to distribute food, water, toiletries, and socks. Mimi and Roda especially love to deliver home-prepared meals of soups, salads, and lasagna. 

In addition to their full-time jobs, Mimi and Roda are clocking 20 to 30 hours a week serving the homeless community. Their long to-do list includes shopping, cooking, putting together care packages, and contacting social care agencies on behalf of the people they meet. Recently, for example, the duo helped a man suffering from schizophrenia get back on his medications by calling his support team at a local mental health agency.

For the two sisters, striking a balance between making a living and making a difference in their community is challenging, to say the least. “I’m exhausted thinking about it,” Roda says. “Yes, we are always tired, 24/7.”

Roda says she and Mimi would rather help their community by promoting literacy, encouraging people to vote, and working to stop gentrification. But homelessness, the sisters emphasize, is a visible, pressing issue. They can’t turn their backs on those who are at risk living on the streets.

“We don’t want to do this,” Roda says. “But we have to. Homelessness is just a travesty to society. It’s not acceptable. None of us should be sleeping well at night knowing there are people who don’t have water and food.”

With this mindset, Mimi and Roda and their cousins Stella Kassiba and A.K. Odongi founded Kass Krew Kollective, a family-run operation that reaches out to Austin’s underserved populations through community service, including the Help the Homies Project under Interstate 35 in downtown Austin.

Michael Burnett, the founder of JUST America, and Roda Ibrahim and A.K. Odongi, in back, of Kass Krew Kollective, pull a wagon of food and supplies during one of the Help the Homies Project events the groups organized. 

The women’s activism continues the work of their late grandparents, Chief Marcello Odio Ibrahim Kassiba and his wife, “Mama” Khadija Ali Mustafa, humanitarians who were raised in royal tribal families in the African countries of Sudan and Tanzania, respectively. He and Mama devoted their lives to uplifting others.

In January 2019, Marcello and his wife departed Canada to visit some of their children in the U.S., including a visit to Austin. There, Mama passed away in June 2019, at the age of 82, and Mimi, Roda, Stella, and A.K. traveled to Texas for her funeral. A short while later, in February 2020, Marcello passed away at the age of 94, and the family was dealt another heartbreak.

Weeks later, as the coronavirus pandemic worsened, Mimi, Roda, Stella, and A.K. started making plans. Believing they weren’t in Austin by accident, the cousins resolved to carry on the legacy of Marcello and Mama, who were laid to rest in Cedar Park Cemetery north of Austin. “Everything we do is in their honor,” Roda said, joining in unison with Mimi to recite their grandparents’ mantra: “It’s not a need to help people, it’s a must.”

Since launching Kass Krew in March 2020, the women have cooked and served more than 1,000 meals for the Help the Homies project under the I-35 bridge over downtown, one of the city’s largest gathering places for people experiencing homelessness. The project is orchestrated by Mimi and Roda, with long-distance support from Stella and A.K., who are now back home in Tennessee and Canada.

Kass Krew coordinates Help the Homies with two other groups, JUST America and Black Queer Lives Matter ATX. The word “homies,” Roda explains, refers to the friendships that she, Mimi, Stella, and A.K. are cultivating within the homeless population. 

The event, which they’ve executed five times during the pandemic, involves pulling wagons of food and drinks from tent to tent, setting up supply tables, and stuffing paper bags with essentials like Band-Aids, deodorant, alcohol wipes, shampoo, toothpaste and toothbrushes, and face masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Kass Krew arrives with a vehicle full of homemade meals — oven-baked chicken, roasted potatoes, steamed vegetables, and macaroni and cheese, just to name a few of their selections.

The food offerings provide openings for conversation between Mimi and Roda and the people they come to assist. To build these relationships, the women start with simple questions: “How are you? What’s your name? What do you need?”

“We don’t know a lot of the homies’ stories in depth,” Roda says. “We’re friends, getting to know each other, and you don’t have to tell me your story for me to do right by you.”

Teri Klima and her dog, Billy Jo, right, live in a tent under Interstate 35 in downtown Austin, where Roda Ibrahim, left, and Kass Krew Kollective served food during a recent Help the Homies event. “These people are taking their time out to come over here and give their food to us. It’s a wonderful feeling,” said Teri.

At the Help the Homies Project in early November, one of the people served was Teri Klima, a 64-year-old woman who lives in a tent beneath I-35 with her feisty Chihuahua, Billy Jo. 

The group’s presence, Teri says, “is very decent and very nice. I said, ‘Wow, these people are taking their time out to come over here and give their food to us. It’s a wonderful feeling. And we get our bellies filled, and we’re thanking them the whole time, praising the Lord.”

In July, at the inaugural Help the Homies event, Mimi, Roda, Stella, and A.K. formed a protective circle around one person, a woman named Stormy, whom they first met in March at her North Austin campsite. 

Pregnant and now in her third trimester, Stormy lacked the resources to access the medical assistance she needed. Stormy was feeling anxious, so the women spoke softly, gently placing their hands on Stormy’s face and shoulders as she broke down crying, overwhelmed by their offer to bring her a tent and help provide prenatal care. “They’re just powerful women,” Stormy said. “They’re got nothing but love, God’s love.”

Roda Ibrahim, left, and Mimi Ibrahim-Kassiba keep framed photos of their grandparents, Marcello and Mama, displayed throughout their home in North Austin. 

This deep level of empathy was modeled by their grandparents, who instilled in their children and grandchildren the values of selflessness and a brand of generosity that expects nothing in return.

Grandfather Marcello earned a reputation as a good Samaritan at the Yambio Agricultural Research Centre he founded in Sudan. Working to create sustainable crop production and food security for the region, he employed the jobless and regularly invited strangers over to enjoy his wife’s delicious meals. Mama never turned anyone away from her table. And when people couldn’t come to her for aid, she went to them. 

For years in Sudan, Mama cared for orphans living in the Nuba Mountains. Toting hot porridge and sandwiches in woven straw baskets, she climbed a high rocky trail to deliver supplies. Her children nicknamed her “Red Cross” because she often asked them to give their belongings to the orphans she visited.

Shunning societal taboos in Sudan, Mama also welcomed those with leprosy into her home. She bathed people suffering from the disease and ate with them, without fear.

Her grandparents, Roda says, carried a spiritual energy everywhere they went. Marcello and Mama could walk into a room, she says, “and immediately you feel grounded, you feel drawn to them, you feel respected and warm and important.”

In turn, the members of Kass Krew Kollective have made it their mission to honor and serve people with this same degree of esteem — to give without expectation, as Roda describes, to act with humility, and to see the brilliance in others.

Continuing in that spirit, Roda says she and her sister and cousins want to expand their operation beyond Austin, to the other cities they call home.

It will take time, and the work will be demanding — physically, emotionally, and spiritually. But the women watched their grandparents commit their lives to service, and they are compelled to do the same. 

They do this work not only to help, but to form lasting relationships with those experiencing homelessness. “Because they are part of the world community,” Roda said. “They are our family. They’re our friends, brothers, and sisters.” 

Top photo: Stormy, a pregnant woman who had been living with the homeless community under Interstate 35 in downtown Austin, is overcome with emotion when Kass Krew members pledge to bring her a tent and to help provide her with prenatal care. “They’re just powerful women,” Stormy said. “They’ve got nothing but love, God’s love.”