IQRA (right) explaining a recipe to a guest with Migrateful co-founder Jess standing between them.—Photo by Benoit Grogan-Avignon
IQRA (right) explaining a recipe to a guest with Migrateful co-founder Jess standing between them.—Photo by Benoit Grogan-Avignon

A YEAR and a half on from the UK’s Brexit vote, debate rages in the country about the causes and consequences of why it became the first EU member to vote to leave. The impact, experts predict, will range from that on the economy and the arts to the restaurant industry and cuisine.

To refresh the memories of the British about the diversity in their palate created by immigrants, Jessica Thompson co-founded Migrateful, which helps refugees through teaching the cooking of their traditional food. This is an initiative she created last year in June as a reaction to the Brexit vote. “English cuisine would be so boring without the migrant influence,” she says.

On a chilly evening I go to meet Jessica, or Jess as she is known, at a restaurant in London, and Iqra, an asylum seeker who will be teaching her first Pakistani cookery class. Outside, people are bundled up in warm clothes waiting for the bus while inside, Rosie’s has a festive atmosphere. Tera woh pyar yaad ayega by Momina Mustehsan and Asim Azhar, a hugely popular song back home, is playing in the background. Jess and Iqra are setting up tables, putting out bowls of carrots, chicken, yoghurt and tomatoes, as well as cooking utensils. Printouts of recipes and the method of preparation are put in place. Guests, who have paid £25 for the class, gather around their counters.

“My name is Iqra and I am from Lahore, which is famous for its food,” the cook begins nervously. “There are special streets for food in my city. When I was in Class 10, I started to cook with my mother, until I reached university where I was doing a Bachelor’s [degree] in fine arts. I can’t work here because I have no visa. Today I will be teaching you [how to make] biryani. When you say biryani, people will come to your house. I will also teach you how to make carrot halva which we make in the winters.”

Dividing the eight learners into two groups, she shows one group first how to make a raita and instructs the other to slice onions thinly for the biryani. The sound of chopping and heady aromas fill the space. I am reminded of scenes back home — women cramming into tiny kitchens, frenziedly cooking meals for their families.

Iqra, 25, contacted the Migrateful team after a nightmarish experience in a hostel. She doesn’t go into the details of her flight from Pakistan and says only that she was having some problems and came to the UK on a student visa. Migrateful helped her get a room under the Housing Justice programme, a homelessness-prevention project in London.

Although refugees and asylum seekers often have high qualifications in their own countries, they are unable to find jobs in the UK. Fifty per cent of refugees are unemployed, even if they are more qualified than the average British person. And this is often because of language barriers or because their qualification is not recognised.

Jess was teaching English to a class of female asylum seekers and discussed with them how they could ‘give back’. “Anyone who is seeking asylum is vulnerable and asking for help, so they are grateful to the country [for giving them refuge] and want to give back,” she explains. “Hence, the name Migrateful.”

During a session on food they came up with the idea of teaching people their traditional cuisines. Jess knew people would pay to learn new recipes because “the English don’t really know cooking. Besides, it is about empowerment and skill-sharing.” Some of the money paid by the guests for these cookery classes goes to the women teaching them.

The cookery teachers are from Pakistan, Syria, Eretria, Iran, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Cuba, and Ecuador.

They are those whose asylum claims have been rejected, have gone into appeal, or are waiting for a decision on their applications. During the appeal process they don’t get any state support, are not permitted to work, and are consequently left open to exploitation and illegal work.

Someone from the group attempting chicken biryani squeals, “That’s a lot of oil,” as Iqra directs them on the amount to cascade into a pot to fry sliced onions. On the other counter, a carrot-grating competition seems to be under way as Dami and Binx furiously shred the vegetable for the halva. This done, Binx drops a large block of butter in a pot, and topples in the shredded carrot. Imi, standing next to her with a large spoon, stirs the mixture, the vapours momentarily concealing her face.

Iqra calls everyone into the restaurant kitchen to show the layering of a biryani. “Just like lasagne”, “smells nice”, “gorgeous”, the guests whisper, solemnly watching the process. “What! the yellow colouring is not because of turmeric but food colour?” exclaims Claire.

Two and a half hours later, piping hot biryani, raita and fragrant halva are served. “Khana nosh farmayain [Bon appetit],” declares Iqra, as she watches her guests tuck in.

Published in Dawn, February 9th, 2018

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