A catchup with the JRS UK Community Kitchen

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A catchup with the JRS UK Community Kitchen

Victoria and Mark sit down to discuss the first two weeks of JRS UK's new Community Kitchen

30 January 2023

A catchup with the JRS UK Community Kitchen

For the last two Wednesdays, the smells and sounds of a meal being prepared – and friendships forming – have filled the JRS building and wafted up to where I sit on the first floor. Alongside the fragrant smells of spices frying and the clang of pots and pans being moved round comes vibrant music and ringing laughter as new friends and old meet and spend time with one another. These are the smells and sounds of our new Community Kitchen.

This week, I couldn’t resist going downstairs to see everyone – and of course, to have my portion of the meal – and there smiling faces and a full plate of Yam Porridge served with fried fish and plantain awaited me. After the meal, I sat down with Mark Dunn, Community Projects Coordinator, to learn more about how the Community Kitchen has come to life and how refugee friends have taken it forward.

What is the Community Kitchen and what does it involve?

Community Kitchen is a space where refugee friends come together and use the kitchen at JRS to share recipes with each other, teach each other how to cook, and then eat together once the food is cooked. You may also have picked up that it’s all about being together!

Each week, refugee friends will tell us what they want to make, what the ingredients they need are and whether they need us to buy the ingredients beforehand, or if they would prefer to go to a local market and get it themselves.

On the day we’ll have about 10 to 12 other refugee friends in the kitchen. The refugee friend who’s leading the session will take complete ownership of the kitchen and show other refugee friends how to cook the meal. The friends involved will be helping with preparations, chopping the veg, cleaning and washing the meat and the fish, helping to cook, helping to clean up as we go along. I think, because of how practical it is, that helps people just to break down barriers, talk to each other, make new friends. It’s a very joyful space.

Friends chopping veg together

Friends chopping veg together

Where have the recipes come from? Are they family recipes?

I actually don’t know where the recipes are coming from. Our refugee friends don’t write down their recipes. They just know it in their heads. They don’t need to weigh things. They just know intrinsically what needs to be done, how much spice is to be used for certain foods. Most of it, I think is very intuitive to people… which is completely different to how I cook!

This week we made yam porridge and fish which was fried. And we also had fried plantain as well. And it was – of course – super, super tasty.

 

Yam porridge, fried fish and plantain

Yam porridge, fried fish and plantain

What have our friends said about the Community Kitchen?

People have said that it’s really helped with their mental health, that they feel a lot more relaxed coming together in the kitchen, that they aren’t stressed or thinking about the home office, or their accommodation issues, and that their mental health and their mood have really been lifted through coming together and doing the Community Kitchen.

I think there’s something about the physicality of cooking together. Everyone having to chip in to do the washing, the prepping, the cooking, and something around food. Bringing people together is really joyful and really communal. There’s something about cooking that everyone regardless of their background, can really resonate with.

Really, it comes to life when refugee friends come into the kitchen – they bring the party, they bring the life and soul to the organisation and it’s through their joy and love of cooking, of being together, dancing together while the music is on – that’s how the Community Kitchen comes together.

Friends all chip in to cook the meal

Friends all chip in to cook the meal

Speaking of the physicality of cooking, do you know if the refugee friends taking part all have access to kitchens in their own time?

Some people are stuck in hotels – so in asylum accommodation – and have been there for months, and really are having a bad time with the food that is precooked for them, that is not suitable for their dietary needs, their cultural needs. There are also some people who are sofa surfing, who don’t have access to a kitchen or their friends don’t allow them to have access to the kitchen. They might be dependent on other people to cook for them or on charities to get food. So knowing that they can come here and cook something themselves and have the agency to cook for themselves in a really joyful space with others is great.

 

The kitchen at JRS

The kitchen at JRS

What do you think is the importance of the space of the Community Kitchen? What impact does it have?

When people walk into the kitchen that their faces light up, knowing that they’re in control of what they’re cooking and that they’re doing that themselves.  It gives our friends agency back and utilises their skills. I think that’s the classic thing with the Home Office and the Hostile Environment – as a deterrent, they do try to strip people of agency to deskill people and to make people feel like their life isn’t worth living. So where possible, we can try to give agency back to refugee friends, to give them a space to use their skills and their talents. It’s really empowering for people, and you can just see the joy when people can do that.

With our activities programme in general, it almost doesn’t matter what you are doing but the fact of bringing people together over an activity and connecting is essential. It holds a really important space to resisting the hostile environment for people on an individual level so that they can survive – joy as a resistance in and of itself is really important. Seeing how connected people become at the end of Community Kitchen, is really, really special.

 

At the end of a morning of cooking, everyone sits down to eat together

At the end of a morning of cooking, everyone sits down to eat together

Thank you, Mark! Finally, can you tell us what you will be cooking next week?

Next week we will be having some Ethiopian food, Injera, which is very exciting and maybe we will have some Ethiopian coffee going!

The Community Kitchen will run for eight weeks at a time. Follow along with the other food we make on our social media, or keep your eyes peeled for more updates!


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Jesuit Refugee Service UK
The Hurtado Jesuit Centre
2 Chandler Street, London E1W 2QT

020 7488 7310
uk@jrs.net

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