Refugees are among the most vulnerable people in the ever-changing world that we live in, forced to leave their homes, families, and everything they have ever known in search of a better life. Because of war, persecution, or other life-threatening circumstances, they are frequently forced to flee, and the journey to safety can be perilous. When refugees arrive in their new country, they face many new sets of challenges. They may not understand the language, have a place to live, or know anyone in their new community. Creating a new identity in a foreign land is one of the most difficult challenges they face. Identity is an essential component of who we are as humans. It is a collection of characteristics that define us as individuals and set us apart from others. For refugees, creating a new identity can be a difficult and complex process. The ability to create a new identity and be allowed to flourish and grow in a new environment is a core right that everyone is entitled to. Identity grows in many forms, and stems from many experiences- such as community, employment and food- as well as their identity as refugees, and the memories they carry from their experiences.
Refugees must navigate a new culture, language, and customs while maintaining their identity and still feeling a connection with the country they have grown up in. Finding work is one way for refugees to begin forming an identity within their new environment. A job not only provides financial stability, but also a sense of purpose and belonging for refugees. Unfortunately, refugees frequently face significant difficulties in finding work. Some of the difficulties they face include language barriers, a lack of access to education or work experience in their new country, and discrimination. In fact, many refugees within the UK face discrimination- with 18% of migrants and 30% of UK-born children of migrants being reported as feeling unsafe and being subjected to racial discrimination (Migrateful, 2021). This is where the Refugee Cafe initiative in Lewisham comes in. The programme was launched in 2019 with the goal of providing refugees with training and job opportunities, as well as safety from discrimination within a tightly knit community. The cafe serves delectable cuisine from around the world, and the chefs have received training through the scheme (Refugee café).
Food is an important aspect of developing, enriching and maintaining one's identity. It is not only a basic human need, but it also plays an important role in culture and tradition. For refugees, food can be a powerful connection to their past and home country. Sharing their food and culture with others can also help to bridge divides and foster community understanding, which helps fight discrimination and prejudice. The Refugee Cafe programme recognises the significance of food in the formation of identity and provides a space for refugees to share their food and culture with the larger community. Customers can sample a variety of international dishes prepared with love and care by refugee chefs. Cooking and sharing food has been shown to grow community and foster relationships in an extremely successful way- with several similar schemes operating worldwide (United Nations). It opens opportunity for refugees to share a part of their culture that they were forced to leave behind, which in turn builds community and knocks down walls. This in turn builds community- the Refugee Cafe scheme's third component. For refugees to develop their identity within their new home, they must first establish a new community. A sense of belonging and support can help refugees adjust to their new surroundings and navigate the challenges that they may face. Unfortunately, establishing a new community can be difficult for refugees, especially if they are in a country where they know no one (O Wahoush, 2009). As a result, the Refugee Cafe programme provides a warm and welcoming environment for refugees to meet new people and form new relationships.
It's more than just a restaurant; it's a place to meet new people and make yourself at home. The Refugee Cafe programme is an excellent example of how providing refugees with jobs, food, and community can help them develop their new identity. By giving refugees the opportunity to work and share their culture, the programme helps them establish a sense of purpose and belonging in their community. By sharing their food, refugees can connect with others and bridge cultural divides. By providing a welcoming space for refugees to connect with their host communities and new homes, the scheme helps refugees build new relationships- creating valuable friendships and further helping them establish a life in their new countries. Creating a new identity is, of course, not always easy, and refugees face numerous challenges along the way. Some may be dealing with the trauma of past events, while others may feel isolated and alone, but initiatives such as the Refugee Cafe can be an important starting point for refugees on their journey to forge a new identity. The Refugee Cafe project has the potential to benefit the entire community by breaking down barriers and promoting understanding between different cultures and is a fantastic starting point for many refugees in fostering the skills needed to help them continue on their path of establishing identity.
Through schemes such as The Refugee Café, the larger community can come to value and appreciate the contributions that refugees can make to their new home. The Lewisham Refugee Cafe scheme exemplifies the power of community-led initiatives, as it was founded by a group of locals who wanted to help their community. Working together and pooling their resources, they were able to create a space that provides much-needed support and opportunities for refugees. Many other community-led initiatives, such as the Integration of Refugees Through Sport (IRTS) programme, help refugees settle into their new communities (IRTS). From community activities to language classes and employment programmes, these initiatives recognise the importance of providing refugees with the tools they need to build their new identity and contribute to their new community. Individuals can also help refugees develop their new identities, we can learn about the challenges that refugees face and the contributions they can make to our communities. We can also help community-led initiatives like the Refugee Cafe scheme by volunteering our time or donating resources.
For refugees forced to flee their homes and start a new life in a foreign land, forming a new identity is a difficult process. By providing employment opportunities, sharing food and culture, and fostering new relationships, we can assist refugees in establishing a sense of purpose and belonging in their new community. The Lewisham Refugee Cafe scheme is a great example of how community-led initiatives can help refugees and the wider community. Individuals can also help refugees and promote cross-cultural understanding by volunteering, something that The Refugee Café greatly encourages. Working together, we can make our society more welcoming and inclusive for people forced to flee. It is essential to support initiatives like the Refugee Cafe scheme, as by doing so, we can help refugees build their new identity and create a sense of belonging in their new community. We can learn from their experiences and culture, enriching our own lives in the process. The success of the scheme in Lewisham is a testimony to the power of community-led initiatives, and the overwhelmingly positive impact they can have on Refugees and their communities, enriching them with culture, forming friendships and strengthening the community as a whole.
Wahoush EO. Reaching a hard-to-reach population such as asylum seekers and resettled refugees in Canada. Bull World Health Organ. 2009 Aug;87(8):568. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2733262/
Nicole is a second year Geography student at Oxford University. She researched and wrote this article as part of the Oxford University Micro Internship programme.