Being an outsider anywhere is nerve-wrecking. But for a refugee, the experience is compounded ten-fold. Often they struggle to acclimatise. Acutely aware of their differences, it knocks a person’s self-esteem. Yet immigration presents systemic challenges. While working with refugees, humanitarian Jessica Thompson listened as they explained how they were qualified in various fields, but their certifications meant nothing in the United Kingdom. When she asked what skills they could offer, they all had the same response – cooking.
In 2017, Thompson launched Migrateful, a social enterprise that gives migrants a platform to share their expertise with other communities. “Our mission is to help them build independent, happy lives in the UK,” she says. Hosting people from countries including China, Cuba, Nigeria, and Pakistan, the project alters the power dynamic between refugees and the communities they are trying to integrate into. Members of host countries can have a negative impression of those entering their space, assuming that newcomers will gain jobs that were meant for them. But people journey thousands of kilometres just to give themselves and their families a better life. Some have faced sex trafficking, abuse, and war. Coming to a new country, they face isolation which is deepened by the trauma they have experienced.
With the guidance of Thompson and her team, migrants are able to navigate their circumstances with more confidence. It starts off by cooking in a trainee programme. In front of a pot, they continue the traditions their families have maintained for years. Their focus shifts from the pressing issues of gaining asylum and instead turns to creativity, enjoying the company of others, and getting used to speaking English. After 12 weeks, they’re ready to lead cooking classes for members of the community.
As they prepare meals with their students, the chefs have the chance to share their stories and speak about their country and heritage. Though Thompson’s initiative is founded on cooking classes, students leave with a lesson in culture and compassion, bound by a sense of respect for all those who immigrate. The teachers themselves are paid for their work and rewarded with a sense of pride, accomplishment, and a place in the community. “Cooking has the power to truly transform lives,” Thompson says. Since the initiative began, she’s facilitated over 1 000 classes and supported 57 chefs. With classes continuing online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Thompson is determined to make the immigration process as welcoming as possible.