The empowering nature of cooking

Jessica Dyer talks to Migrateful founder Jess Thompson about the empowering nature of cooking and connecting communities through a cultural exchange.

Haifa, a Syrian refugee living in London, teaches her first public cooking class to a group of young Europeans in London at the founder of Migrateful’s home. Here Haifa and her “students for the night” share a meal of falafel and molokhiyeh, a dish made of chicken and bitter greens. Migrateful is a cultural exchange designed to help refugee chefs like Haifa integrate, and practice English, while at the same time introducing Brits to migrants, fostering appreciation of the culture that they’re bringing to the United Kingdom in a time of increasing anti-refugee sentiment across the country.

Migrateful is a social enterprise based in Brixton whose mission is to empower and celebrate their chefs on their journey to employment and independence.

Migrateful run cookery classes led by refugees, asylum seekers and migrants struggling to integrate and access employment. Founder Jess Thompson realised that cookery classes present the ideal conditions to learn English, build confidence, promote contact and cultural exchange with the wider community.

Migrateful launched in 2017, inspired by a conversation Jess had at a Time Bank project with refugee women in Tower Hamlets, while completing a course to create a social enterprise. Migrateful is now in London, Bristol and Kent, with over 20 countries represented by the chefs. Since the lockdown Migrateful have moved online to continue to deliver global cuisine to your kitchen and support their chefs.

Yusuf Migrateful Chef
“I joined Migrateful to give me a platform to integrate, cook and teach my recipes to different people from the around world. Food is what unites us.” – Yusuf, Syrian chef

After graduating from university Jess left the UK to work in a refugee camp in Morocco and later Dunkirk. “I returned to London and started a fellowship course on how to set up a social enterprise. As part of the programme I was at TimeBank with a group of refugee women who were all unemployed even though they were highly qualified” explains Jess. In the UK migrant’s qualifications are not sufficently recognised, this means that regardless of an individual’s qualifications they cannot continue to work in areas they have built a lifetime of skills in.

In conversations the women told Jess, the one thing they felt they could share was cooking. Jess says, “There were 10 different countries represented in the room, I realised that cookery classes could be a means of employment and allow people to integrate while improving English skills. To date we have delivered 650 cookery classes with over 6500 participants and have 32 chefs who work for Migrateful. It all started with an Iranian woman who taught a group of friends in my kitchen!”

Jess continues, “The main obstacle to integration is a lack of support network, Migrateful helps our chefs meet people, form a community and offers employment opportunities. The Home Office asylum system is very challenging, and it becomes difficult for people to ask for help due to low self-esteem and lack of language.” Migrateful shows these chefs that they have a lot to offer and are really valued members of the community. By sharing the food they love with others, there is a tangible application of their skills and this cultural exchange enhances the wider society.

Anastasia Migrateful CHef
“I find London a lonely place. People are often hostile to me because I’m from Eastern Europe. People often know nothing about Ukraine. It means I’ve started to keep myself to myself and that has made me lonely. So Migrateful is a way to meet open minded people who share the same values as me. I’m so excited to talk to my class participants about my culture. It makes me feel very free. It’s a platform where I can really be myself and get my identity back. Here people are actually interested in me and my culture, it’s so lovely.” – Anastasia, Ukrainian chef

85% of Migrateful’s income comes from the cookery classes, which gave them a very sustainable model delivering 20 classes a week. However, since the coronavirus and lockdown, the charity lost all income overnight. “It has left us in a very vulnerable position. We set up a crowdfunder to help the organisation stay alive for 3 months…” Jess explains.

With social distancing measures a new norm, it is unlikely that Migrateful will be able to restart ‘in person’ classes for some time, the 3-month survival is looking more long-term and they need your help to continue. “We have had to look at our model and work out how to give it a sustainable future in the current circumstance, without diluting the offering to participants or chefs” says Jess.

Ahmad, a Migrateful chef from Lebanon, took a lot of initiative and set a positive tone, Jess continues “We were thinking God is it over for Migrateful and straight away Ahmad said, ‘We have to save the Migrateful family!’”

They all jumped on zoom to brainstorm and have released online cookery classes as a result. Small groups are guided through a recipe with one of the chefs, giving the opportunity for the chef to continue to check their students work, engage and communicate. There were initial concerns that the demand might not be enough for online cookery classes as it is a different offering, “Hopefully people will keep coming” Jess says.

Nahida Migrateful Chef
“I’m so happy teaching my recipes in Migrateful classes. Each class is different and I love spending time with people from a variety of backgrounds. It has made me proud to see them enjoying my food. Now I feel respected as a chef. Migrateful has given me the confidence and help to start my own catering company.” – Nahida, Bengali chef

The government support made available for those who are unable to work or have lost their income due to coronavirus is not available to the Migrateful chefs. Jess continues, “Our chefs have been relying on the income they collect from teaching for Migrateful and aren’t eligible for government support. Half of our chefs are asylum seekers, which means they are provided with £37 a week to survive and this is often given as tokens for certain goods. We supplement this with our Solidarity Fund, which is a £25 weekly grant.”

Migrateful have started a podcast called ‘Migrateful Meets’ where Jess interviews each of the chefs. The first episode was recorded with Ahmad. Ahmad was shot by two bullets while working as a paramedic for the Lebanese Red Cross 12 years ago and was paralysed. The interview fell on the anniversary of the event, Ahmad would usually make sure he was not alone on that day and the episode became a new way of commemorating when it was not possible to be surrounded by friends. “All the chefs have such incredible stories to share” says Jess. These episodes are a way of capturing these stories and sharing them with a wider audience.

Edite Migrateful Chef
“I am very grateful to Migrateful because this opportunity is helping me to reconnect to my roots and keep the knowledge of my traditions alive. I feel very proud to share with London my Angolan culture. It’s helping me to remember who I am and where I’ve come from.” – Edite, Angolan chef

Four Migrateful chefs so far have gone on to set up their own businesses. “One of our chefs from Syria was a social worker, when they arrived in the UK, they were unable to work but they really loved cooking. Working at Migrateful showed them how much people love their food and, when they were finally granted the right to work, they set up a catering business. We promote these chefs and their businesses through our website too”, explains Jess.

What is the future for Migrateful? Well there is a cookbook on the way. They have a number of furloughed volunteers who are currently working with the chefs on recipe development. The chefs know the recipes by feel, smell, taste and often this does not cross over in the written recipes, which is why these volunteers have been brought on board, they have the task of translating these authentic and diverse recipes into pages of a cookbook. Jess clarifies, “What you find is the quantities change every time!”

“Our bigger vision is to be running in other parts of the country” says Jess. Before lockdown they had received funding to run another project in Kent, giving them 3 Migrateful Hubs. They are testing the model in the hope that it can be replicated in other areas of the UK to help as many people as possible.

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