Duchess Kate has been listening to the insightful stories and unique experiences of some of the 100 finalists who appeared in the Hold Still: A Portrait of Our Nation in 2020 book, thanks to phone calls she conducted last autumn.
In the latest call shared with the public, the Duchess of Cambridge heard about the incredible community spirit in London's Hackney neighbourhood during the coronavirus pandemic through volunteer Sami Ayad. He had just moved to London when COVID-19 cases started to take off.
Sami, a PhD student in the United Kingdom, started volunteering at the Community Food Hub after his partner Helen, who works for the NHS through Great Ormond Street Hospital in London, contracted the novel coronavirus.
After she tested positive, the couple went into quarantine for two weeks. During the period of isolation, Sami noticed a woman from his window, who turned out to be Michelle Dornelly from the Community Food Hub. His flat overlooks the hub, which collects surplus food and provides it to those in need.
When his quarantine was finished, Sami went to find Michelle, who he says is the person who deserves thanks.
"She is unstoppable," the Rio de Janeiro native said. "She's got a heart of gold. She works so hard for her community."
He later called her a "force of nature" and spoke of her tireless efforts to help the Hackney community in need.
Sami said on the first day he went to the Community Food Hub, he happened to see photographer Grey Hutton, who was capturing images as part of receiving the National Geographic COVID-19 grant.
Grey snapped Sami while volunteering at the hub, and the photo ended up becoming one of the final 100 shots selected for the Hold Still book. The image is simply titled "Sami" and features the volunteer standing outside in a plastic apron and gloves and smiling at the camera. The picture is part of a larger collection that brings attention to the volunteer network in the borough.
"Sami, your story is really fascinating and this is what the whole reason for doing this was, really – to highlight stories like yours, and to really highlight the amazing work out there," said Kate. "So, I'm really glad that Grey submitted your photograph."
The mom of three added the pandemic had exacerbated the existing need for services such as the hub in the community.
"I learned so much from my time there – to connect to the other volunteers, that's for life, you know?" Sami agreed. "I also learned the power of empathy, compassion and community."
Sami spoke of the fond memories of community he created during his time in the U.K. and how he will cherish them.
"And that's what really, really made me appreciate the U.K.," Sami said after Kate talked about how he was at the heart of the British community. "Having that, because it was such a deep connection, like on a human level that transcends where you're from. It's all about seeing other people as people, that was magic."
Sami, who is originally from Sudan but raised in Brazil, returned home to his family in Rio. But before he left the U.K. he was able to meet Kate and Prince William at the launch of the Hold Still community exhibition at Waterloo Station in October 2020. He hopes to settle with his partner in Australia and he would like to have the opportunity to visit Michelle at the Community Food Hub in the future.
In the previous phone call, the Duchess of Cambridge chatted with Gimba, a ward nurse at Whipps Cross Hospital in East London. Her friend Hassan Akkad took her portrait when she was on her lunch break.
During the battle with COVID-19, Gimba's mother, who lives in Nigeria, became ill and was hospitalized. Gimba was unable to see her due to travel restrictions. Gimba told Kate she was committed to her patients and did not want to take any time off.
"It was hard, but it's a job I love to do because the patients need us," Gimba told the duchess during the moving phone call.