Rabia Abdul is the quiet woman in colorful khimars who swipes students into Penn Hillel’s Falk Dining Commons. She is also one of the most zealous workers in the Justice on the Menu campaign.
Abdul was 18 when she began working at Penn in 2004. She considers herself naturally shy. In order to campaign, she said, “I had to learn how to be more vocal, because I’m more of a silent person.”
But, she added, “if they get me there, the mouth starts working”.
Rabia, a Bon Appétit Management Company employee was stationed at Hillel in 2010. Ever since, she has been unsatisfied with certain aspects of her working conditions.
Abdul hopes first and foremost to see an improvement in the dining workers’ financial situation.
Like many of her colleagues, she needs to work two jobs to make ends meet. Every day, she spends six hours in Hillel baking and attending the cash register. Before that, she works seven hours in another food service position.
Lianna Brenner, a College senior and Abdul’s friend, sees her “running from one job to the next,” noting she often looks tired at the end of the day.
Abdul needs the extra hours to provide for her family, but it limits the time she can spend with her three children.
She leaves work at 8:30 p.m. on most days, and by the time she gets home, “they’re asleep,” she said. She mostly sees them on the weekends, when she also has to “try to catch up on sleep.”
Abdul’s focus on her family has motivated her activism both at Penn and closer to home. In December, when the city threatened to shut down the elementary school that her two youngest children attended, Abdul went out of her way to protest the plan. The school remains open, yet she still worries that her daughter and youngest child, a preschooler, may have to relocate due to an influx of students from other schools.
To attend community discussions, Abdul had to go home early and risk “running behind” in her paychecks.
She’s “a huge part of her children’s life,” said Brenner, who is impressed by Abdul’s level of responsibilities as a wife and mother of three. “She’s only five years older than me — its’s crazy!”
Abdul is on a first-name basis with many Hillel regulars, with whom she likes to trade fashion compliments.
“Rabia is kind of quiet if you don’t know her, but she’s really spunky too,” said College junior and Student Labor Action Project member Eliana Machefsky. “She’ll put her foot down and stand up for herself.”
Machefsky is also one of many students whose clothing style Abdul approves of. “Eliana! I want your dress and your tights and your shoes,” she sometimes tells her during Shabbat. “I want your scarf,” Machefsky replies, referring to Abdul’s large collection of “beautiful” khimars. Abdul’s personal favorite? The one with the multicolored leopard print.
Working at Hillel is “more than just a job,” Abdul said. Because she sees students every day, she added, they are “more family to me than friends.”
Abdul also has actual family on Penn’s campus. During her first year at Penn, she met her husband, Anthony Jordan, a Houston Market cook. They married a year later, when Abdul was 19.
According to Jordan, Abdul is far from quiet. “She’s got a mouth on her,” he said, “especially if you rub her the wrong way.”
Jordan has been hearing echoes of his wife’s campaign at work. “I see its effect down at Houston Market,” he said.
Despite her history at Penn, Abdul is considering leaving her position at Hillel to complete school. She would also like to focus on her other job, where she was promoted to a managerial position after only two years. The salary there is “way higher,” she said, adding that at Penn, it has been “nine years and I’m still at the bottom.”
She is thankful for certain opportunities at Hillel — in particular, for the chance to apply the skills she was learning at culinary school in her spare time. She now bakes cookies and makes pizza dough from scratch. To a degree, she said, Hillel “did allow me to shine.”
But overall, she is frustrated with the limited raises and lack of opportunities for career advancement.
“If I had a better opportunity with Bon Appétit, I could see myself being there for many more years,” she said.
Abdul is still unsure. The rapid progress of the campaign has made her decision harder. In a way, she is “back to square one” in terms of planning her future.
However, her doubts never affected her commitment to the Justice on the Menu campaign. “I always wanted to stick by my coworkers,” she said. “The things that they’d been going through, I’d be going through.”
This article has been updated to emphasize that Rabia Abdul is employed by Bon Appetit.