Asylum seeking and conscious eating

10 Mins read

It’s a crisp Saturday afternoon at Partridge’s food market in Chelsea. Families, young couples and the odd foodie are doing a slow shuffle around the market square; glancing at Thai summer rolls, organic kale, sushi and oysters splashed with Tabasco and a squeeze of lemon. The shufflers politely smile but are careful not to display too much enthusiasm. Maybe they will make a loop and decide on lunch the second time around the square.

Ghazel is standing, zipped in a warm jacket, ready and waiting for customers at her bread stall. It’s not exactly her bread stall, but she’s worked hard to be here: standing, every Saturday behind a table filled with croissants, brioche buns, a variety of sourdoughs and the last of three baguettes, now stacked in an ‘H’ shape.

A mother, daughter and a white and brown spaniel drift towards the stall, seduced by the sight of artisan bread. The mother takes in what’s before her and then begins “What about the sourdough? We’ll get this… this and that” pointing towards another roll and another, “some dark rye…” she trails off.

“We need some rye,” says the daughter seriously, “let’s get two of those.” They soon leave, bags full of bread for Christmas entertaining no doubt, it is after all three days before the big event. “The most amazing bread,” they say to Ghazal before rushing off with spaniel in tow.

The stall belongs to Breadwinners, a grassroots charity that helps unemployed refugees and asylum seekers gain work experience in the UK.

According to the UK charity, Refugee Council, by the end of September 2018, 11,538 applications for asylum had waited more than six months for an initial first stage decision to be made on cases. Asylum seekers who have not received their refugee status are not able to work, and those who have received status face the challenging reality of finding a job with no past UK work experience.

Charities, such as Breadwinners are hoping to make the road to employment less of a challenge by training those seeking asylum and employing those who already have refugee status.

“We are really small, very grassroots charity,” says Martin Cosarinsky Campos, the director of Breadwinners. “We have four markets, we support six people, actually we support 13 people in total, six people with employment, refugees that have status, we can employ them, and then we support seven young people that are claiming asylum in the UK. Basically what we do is give them the first opportunity of work or work experience in the UK.”

A woman cutting bread for tasters at the Breadwinners food stall

Ghazal working at the Breadwinners stall [Breadwinners]

Ghazal is one of those refugees. Hailing from Syria, Ghazal was living in Aleppo and considering studying for a master’s degree, but the war in her city prevented that goal from being realised. She left for Damascus to join her family, but again, the war prevented her from staying.

Faced with the imminent danger of living in a warzone, Ghazal, her sister and mother travelled to Iraq, and she worked at a travel agency to try and support herself and her family. Things stayed like this for a time, until her mother decided to relocate to Germany, Ghazal and her sister soon realised the challenges facing two single women living alone the Middle East: “We got a lot of trouble,” she remembers.

The two sisters then embarked on their journey to the UK through a UN resettlement programme. “It was difficult in London, new culture, new people. We felt very strange being in the streets, in the park,” says Ghazal, but two months after her arrival a friend suggested she volunteer with Breadwinners: so she did.

Now Ghazal manages this stall in Chelsea and her life has changed as a result. “If not for Breadwinners, I don’t know what I would do, because I didn’t know anybody here. To work here, you have to have UK experience and nobody will use us if we don’t have it. When I came to Breadwinners I get some work experience. Now when I go to an interview I am more confident.”

Although Ghazal and the others involved in the Breadwinners training programme do not actually bake the bread, Martin feels the environment of food market stalls can create a valuable experience for them. “We want to give them transferrable skills, like customer service in sales and management which can support them to find many other types of jobs; we find that in the market stalls and the farmer’s market is very social and people have time to talk, as well as networking and making friends, offer a trade with customers.”

Woman cuts bread for tasters at the Breadwinners market stall

Ghazal now manages the Breadwinners stall at the Partridge’s Food Market in Chelsea [Breadwinners]

There are many charities in the UK aimed at supporting refugees and asylum seekers, but recently there has been an emergence of organisations using food as a tool for integration.“Food is a universal language, and it’s something everyone loves, everyone can share this lovely food,” says Jess Thompson, founder and CEO of Migrateful. “It felt like a really obvious and easy way to connect people. Whereas other things, like refugees becoming language tutors would be another option, but that would take a lot more training.”

Migrateful, like Breadwinners, provides training and support to refugees looking for work in the UK, but also create workshops where people pay £35 to take part in cooking classes taught by refugees and asylum seekers. Currently, they are offering classes where participants are given a choice to learn cuisines from Afghanistan, Iran, Lebanon, Egypt,  Tunisia, Albania, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Cuba and Ecuador.

Woman placing food in the oven at a class at Migrateful

Migrateful supports refugees and asylum seekers find job opportunities and training to teach cooking classes [Migrateful]

The idea behind Migrateful originated while Jess was teaching English to a group of refugee women in East London. Despite the women being very qualified individuals, they were unemployed. “They were forced to leave their countries and arrived in this country, [where] their qualifications didn’t count, and because of the language barriers they were unable to get work,” Jess told us.

After asking the women to bring in a recipe from their home country for a lesson on food, Jess went around the room, asking the group to describe their favourite dish, she could see the excitement the women felt when talking about cooking. “That was the moment I thought ‘this is a skill set that all of you have and there are lots of people in this country who would love to learn about your food, so why don’t we make this a way to get you into employment.’ That was the motivation behind it.”

Working with food and teaching clients from the UK has been an effective way for the refugees training at Migrateful to integrate into their new country. “When you are constantly having to ask for help in the asylum system and getting turned down by the Home Office, it’s a very disempowering situation. Everything is out of your control,” Jess says. “Teaching the cookery classes is a chance for them to feel really in control, to feel celebrated, to feel like the leader and feel really valued for what they are offering people in this country.”

One such story of empowerment comes from an Iranian chef, Parastoo, who works with the charity. “She was very shy and hated public speaking when she first arrived at Migrateful,” Jess says. Part of the cookery class requires the chef to present themselves at the start: “She always felt very uncomfortable about that.”

The organisation was asked by the UNHCR to provide catering at an event for Refugee week, “It was a very high profile and exciting event for us, and they asked us to give a talk in front of three hundred people at the beginning of the event. So I asked Parastoo to do it, she did this absolutely beautiful talk, it was just amazing because it was something she felt like she would never have been able to do. I felt so proud of her.”

Three women smiling and cooking at Migrateful

Refugees and asylum seekers from many countries grow in confidence as they learn [Migrateful]

A report released by All Party Partial Group (APPG) in 2017, reports that refugees who arrive in the UK, apply for asylum and are then granted refugee status, do not receive specific support to help them integrate into their new country; such as future employment training or help to access services. The report says that from 2008 until 2011, there was once such a support scheme but, “Since then, there has been no Government provided support service for refugees who have been through the asylum system.”

This APPG report echoes Jess’ concerns when answering what some of the biggest challenges faced by small charities like hers. “It’s just so hard to integrate if you don’t know the language well. We have a situation where the migrant population has doubled in the last couple of decades, but there is not the actual interaction initiatives to support this. So we need a lot of funding to bring the community together.”

The organisation, Stories On Our Plate (SOOP), a not-for-profit social enterprise, have approached the integration issue by setting up a monthly supper club, where people of different backgrounds can cook for paying customers and share the food from their country of origin.

“We set up nearly three years ago, and I met with Jolien Benjamin, who is the other co-founder of SOOP,” says Jack Fleming, co-founder and executive director. “We really essentially came together with SOOP as this almost binding foundation of how we both see food in this particular way. By that I mean this lens that sees food, people and their identity, how you can create relationships between people through food and really celebrating more of the person behind the food.”

Diners enjoying one of SOOP's supper clubs.

Diners enjoying one of Stories On Our Plate’s supper clubs [SOOP]

“We’ve had cooks of all circumstances and backgrounds wanting to get involved and that’s really the point of it; UK nationals, migrant backgrounds, whatever it might be,” says Jack. Although SOOP’s supper clubs are not exclusive to people from migrant backgrounds, the organisation did set up a culinary support initiative, for cooks from refugee and migrant backgrounds. In this programme, the cooks are taught by professionals working in the food industry and are offered employment advice.

“We have only ever had one of those before. But that was essentially a culinary training programme with two cooks, it was more geared towards cooks who actually wanted to come out of that programme hosting for supper clubs. So there is another theme there of building up confidence and skills to host your first pop-up.”

SOOP’s supper clubs aim to create an immersive environment for the dinner guests, where the chefs attempt to express their story: who they are and where they come from, through the food they serve.

Mandana Moghaddam, an Iranian chef with an eye for perfection, arrived in the UK in 1984 soon after the revolution in Iran and created a life for herself in England. “I’ve formed my personality here in the UK, I’m educated here, I went to university here, I got married here, my children are English, so I have had a lifetime here,” she says.

“But nevertheless, there is always this sense of something lonely, even though I have loads of people around me, my work, my colleagues, in fact, less Iranian friends and more English friends. But there was this loneliness and I think that’s what was missing. That sense of belonging to something…of going somewhere where people know your history.”

After connecting with Jack through social media, they realised they shared the same vision of storytelling through food. Mandana has since hosted a number of supper clubs with SOOP. “I wanted to introduce my culture, keep my culture alive for my children, as well as whoever is interested. For me, it was like hosting people in my own home and giving them the experience of, as if they are going to an Iranian friend’s for lunch.”

The idea of hosting a supper club, where people are paying to attend, created a safe space for Mandana to express herself. “If they are coming to the supper club they are already interested. Their minds are different than just booking a restaurant. It wasn’t about teaching them how to cook so much, it was about, ‘I would like to tell you where I’m from, what we do,’ and that makes me feel like I belong, and then they start sharing back with me. That sense of belonging that I was missing, was fulfilled for me.”

[pullquote align=”right”] “I wanted to introduce my culture, keep my culture alive for my children, as well as whoever is interested[/pullquote]For her first supper club, Mandana painstakingly created a Persian menu for her dinner guests. She cooked a traditional Nowruz (Iranian New Year) feast: saffron-fried fish alongside herb rice, brimming with dill, tarragon and basil. Made with a crispy potato base and a side of homemade pickle. The dessert? A cream sponge Swiss roll filled with rose water cream and pistachio. Finished with a sprinkle of rose petals on top.

Mandana decorated the table with a leafy runner, with hyacinth petals entwined through a wire, like a necklace, wrapped around a wreath made of pussy willow. Painted eggs were placed carefully around the centrepiece. “The flowers were not chosen randomly, they were chosen because it’s the flowers Iranian’s put on the new year,” Mandana told us.

Before serving the guests, she stood in front of them and read a piece of poetry, ‘everything was really thought about to give a Persian sense. It wasn’t a bare table with your food in front of you, because it wasn’t just about the food, it was about experiencing it.”

The personal and all-inclusive nature of SOOP is something that Mandana feels is a valuable aspect in creating a space for community integration. “The main thing with SOOP is about sharing stories. It’s just sharing stories and attracting interest in that. The minute you put the word refugee into it you think ‘oh my god, it’s some political…’ but that’s exactly what we want people to move away from, hearing people out instead of realising what’s their political activity about.”

SOOP have recently turned it’s supper club stories into a book, Stories On Our Plate: Recipes and Conversations, where the supper club chefs share three of their favourite recipes alongside the stories behind them. Mandana remembers the photo shoot and interview for the book which took place in her home. She ended up spending hours with Jolien [Benjamin] and the photographer where food, again, provided the perfect tinder for meaningful connection and conversation.

“That’s is exactly what happens with food, I was telling them why I chose those three particular foods and what’s the story behind it. It just opened up another conversation about life, about marriage, about kids, about everything, the philosophy of life; again that’s proof in how close you can get through food.”






More information on these organisations can be found at:



Stories On Our Plate:

Featured Image by Migrateful.

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