Cooking to survive in exile

Photo taken at Ahmed’s Migrateful Lebanese cookery class

Jess Thompson is founder of Migrateful, a social enterprise providing cooking classes taught by refugees, asylum seekers and migrants from over 20 different countries. Here she unpacks how Migrateful empowers their chefs on the journey to employment, integration and independence.

“When I’m eating delicious Lebanese food with my cookery class students I can forget about all the pain. I feel loved” says Lebanese chef Ahmed. He continues “You see sharing food is what makes us human”. I never truly appreciated the power of cooking to empower and nurture people before I founded Migrateful: a social enterprise where asylum seekers and refugees teach their traditional cuisines to paying customers.

Ahmed is right; there’s nothing else we humans do, other than eating together that is so central to making us feel part of a group. No wonder a ‘companion,’ deriving from the Spanish “con pan” meaning “with bread”, is someone with whom to share your bread. What all of our chefs tell me is that sharing their cooking skills, has made them feel really cherished for the first time here in the UK and at the same time helped them to feel closer to home even when they’re thousands of miles away.

Ahmed, the Migrateful chef from Lebanon, was shot twice by a member of the Shia opposition during the internal conflict which broke out in Lebanon between the Sunni and Shia Muslims, leaving him paralysed for life. He tells me how through all the pain and uncertainty, cooking has been his lifeline here in the UK.

“8 years later in 2016, I encountered a road block manned by the same gunman who had shot me. Later that day I was followed and shot at by a gunman on a motorbike. Following advice from state intelligence services who believed I was being targeted, I fled the country leaving behind my fiancée and my job. I’ve been in the UK since 2016. It’s been really hard.”

“I just really hope the Home Office will accept my refugee status soon,” says Ahmed, “As an asylum seeker I can’t work. I have no reason to wake up early. The only thing that keeps me going is my cookery classes — they give me something to plan for. I was shot right on the nerve in my back so I am always in a lot of pain. But when I’m cooking I don’t feel my pain anymore. It’s therapy for me.

I also love that in my classes I am referred to as the Lebanese chef, rather than the refugee. This title has brought me dignity and helped me to keep believing in myself. What’s more; food has an incredibly ability to take me home. My mother used to make me these delicious cheese rolls for breakfast in Lebanon on special occasions. Every time I teach one of my students to make one of these rolls, it takes me back to those happy mornings with her.”

Over half of the Migrateful chefs are destitute asylum seekers, without recourse to public funds and unable to legally work. On average they wait 5 years to get their immigration status, forcing many into destitution and homelessness. Ahmed’s story gives us a heartbreaking insight into the lived experience of the UK’s inhumane Hostile Environment Policy; a set of policies designed to make our country so hostile that migrants voluntarily leave.

It’s Ahmed’s 37th birthday next month. He told me “I just have one wish, the same wish I’ve had for the last 4 years, ever since my exile started here in the UK. I wish to live my life, like any normal human being, without the fear of being deported back to Lebanon, or the fear of being killed. That’s what I think about every night before I go to sleep.”

We can’t ensure secure immigration status to our chefs, but we can provide a loving community, that looks out for one-another and negotiates the human consequences of the Hostile Environment Policy with care and warmth.  We can provide an income, a purpose, and an appreciation of the talents of our chefs. Cooking together and sharing the skills, flavours, and stories from around the world builds community and belonging for everyone, but especially for those told by the government that they do not belong.