“You know, how hard is it?
We’re not only settling here, we also have stories there.” (Leyla*)
The UNCHR estimated in mid-2022 that there were approximately 103 million forcibly displaced people worldwide. To be forcibly displaced — to be a refugee — means to lose a home in more than one sense. It is not just to lose the home found in your house, but also in the streets surrounding it, the familiar faces of friends and neighbours, the sounds and smells of your neighbourhood. It could be to lose the place of home that is found in your country, your language, your anchor for experiencing the world — and the home that is found in your food.
Food is one of the most basic needs of a refugee, and also one of the most urgent. 80% of people find themselves in areas of acute food insecurity or circumstances of malnutrition once displaced (UNCHR). In refugee camps, this need can be understood simply enough: there isn’t enough food, and what food there is is neither nutritious nor strengthening. It seems to follow, therefore: ensure access to plentiful, nourishing food within refugee camps, and this need is fulfilled. Yet the human need for food is not as simple as purely a need to eat, nor so clear-cut. To consider simply providing food a full solution to the need for sustenance is to ignore the deeper, broader human needs attached to food, needs which are exposed by conditions of food insecurity and which exist far beyond life in a refugee camp.
How can these deeper needs be seen? Consider first that living in food insecurity doesn’t only mean going hungry, but that not knowing when you’ll have your next meal means losing any autonomy over food. In a refugee camp, you can’t cook for yourself or choose what you eat. Day by day, this lack of self-determination chips away at your sense of self, your self-value, at the part of your identity that is found in food. Any joy, pleasure or peace that might be found in cooking, sharing and eating food slowly disintegrates. So too does the sense of contribution or creation that could have emerged from cooking; the sense of community that comes from food’s attached experiences of sharing and talking. Move beyond the refugee camp, and food insecurity takes on a different form. Setting up life in a foreign country means losing access to the cuisine of your homeland — which means losing access to every story and memory that are held in the foods of your country, the collective identity that these contribute to, and this part of your identity more generally.
Food, then, is clearly far more than a means to survival. It has enormous power to shape our sense of self, our identity and feeling of belonging. One way to capitalise upon this dormant power is to promote and spread use of the community kitchen as a tool of belonging. A happily baggy term, community kitchens are spaces in which groups of people meet regularly to cook and share healthy, affordable meals, typically for members of a community who are more vulnerable or who live on the fringes of society. Even within the limits of a refugee camp, the benefits of the community kitchen are clear. Consider organisations like Calais’ Refugee Community Kitchen (RCK) — while refugees are not able to cook for themselves in these kitchens, the fact that a space is opened up, “a moment in the day where people gather and connect” to eat a home-cooked meal, already “recreate[s] a sense of community”. It has a humanising effect in circumstances that are deeply dehumanising. “We believe that food is a human right,” states RCK, by which they don’t simply mean that everyone has the right to not go hungry, but that “everyone deserves food that we’d be happy to eat at our own tables”.
Beyond the camps, community kitchens also tap into the enormous potential food has for in refugee integration. Around the globe — from Kadın Kadınlar in İstanbul to the New Arrival Supperclub in Los Angeles — community kitchens, in which refugees cook and share their traditional foods with their new community, provide a way for refugees to integrate into communities without having to assimilate. Cooking traditional foods allows refugee cooks to build upon the sense of identity that is attached to their homeland, while establishing a new sense of identity by sharing it with a new community. Language is the biggest barrier for refugees, but in the refugee kitchen the most important communication takes place with the universal language of food. This culinary exchange is a way for refugees to be understood by others, but also creates an opportunity for active, reciprocal understanding of others. That is to say, in the refugee community kitchen, food acts as a mediating gesture of cultural exchange between people. In the kitchen, the Syrian dish kubbeh acts as a kind of buffer through which individuals can come to learn about Syria and its culture, removed from any highly charged political climates. It provides an opportunity for local people to understand refugees as people defined by the communities and cultures they belong to far more strongly and essentially than they are by their refugee experience, and a space to see how much more there is to the refugee’s home country than what is on the news. These people are not a political issue, they see, these are people just like us.
Sharing food encourages cultural exchange as a form of play; as a kind of experience that should be first and foremost fun. For instance, the ‘United We Eat’ community kitchen, which sells refugees’ home-made, traditional food as take-out to the local community, hands out slips of paper with each dish explaining its ingredients and its background and suggests customers use greetings in each chef’s native language, which are written on a whiteboard in the pickup area. The interactions between chef and customer that follow from these gestures are organic, and facilitate genuinely intimate and joyful connections. Embedded in the unknown of a foreign language, the customer’s communications are that of a child, and the joy that comes from the connection becomes much purer as all pretence in the conversation is stripped away. “It’s about shifting the power dynamics and making sure this space is the refugee chef’s sphere,” writes the group in the New York Times. Gently nudging the local people out of their comfort zone in the realm of food means they can experience a little of what it means to be constantly surrounded by a different culture as a refugee. All this enhances the capacity for empathy, and all this stems from the shared experience of food.
Refugee kitchens don’t just facilitate cultural exchange and empathy, but have a positive impact on the mental wellbeing and socio-economic independence of the refugee cook, fulfilling many of the seven fundamental human needs. Much of sharing home-cooked food is about creating a space that is one’s own, as well as a moment in time in which food can be enjoyed. Importantly, many refugee community kitchens provide a space that empowers female refugees while paying respectful attention to the cultural relativism that means some refugee women might feel uncomfortable with other ways of integrating into a community. “In lockdown English people go for a walk, they go cycling … we don’t have this culture, sorry. We really don’t have this culture,” explains Leyla*, chef at the Damascus Rose Kitchen in Oxford. Often refugee families are suddenly headed by widowed women — of the Myanmar refugees, for example, 32,000 families were unexpectedly led by women, many of whom had never worked before. Refugee community kitchens provide a way to combat the significant difficulty refugees face in gaining the right to work more generally, by establishing employability and providing a small income, but for many female refugees, the kitchen offers them a space to work in which they are comfortable. Leyla* describes leading the women at her kitchen in Oxford: “I didn’t let them notice they are vulnerable. I always tried to say, “You can do it, you will do it”.”
Breaking bread and sharing food may seem like a small thing when faced up with the magnitude of the refugee crisis, but to understand other people as a full, complex humans is to understand that they are made up of lots of small things — the sum of their likes and dislikes, moments and memories, the time spend with family and friends — and that all of these small things are important, and so many of them are held within the food we eat, and how we eat it. Affording this humanity is vital because as Leyla* says, “they call you refugee all the time, and now this ‘Oh poor refugee’ […] it’s not my whole story, why don’t you at me as I’m good woman? I want to be the strong woman.”