No one is born a migrant. Such status depends on many factors, including the way people are treated by society, and the opportunities and possibilities they have for the future. Human rights activist and Syrian refugee Majeda Khoury made this clear to me when we spoke this week.“When I arrived in Britain,” she told me, “I met many people who were suffering due to the stigma of being refugees and migrants. They didn’t choose to be here and they don’t want to stay here. That’s why I want to prove to everyone here with my work that refugees can always do something with their skills and help this country.”
Majeda was forced to leave Syria in 2016 after speaking out against the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad and subsequent fears that her work as a social worker had put her family in danger. Life there became too dangerous. She fled to Lebanon, leaving her two sons – then, just 13 and 16 – with her husband in Damascus.
As a human rights activist, she travelled to Britain after gaining a fellowship to study English.
Whilst in the country, she heard that it would be unsafe for her to return to Lebanon, so she applied for asylum and was later awarded refugee status.
“Luckily, it wasn’t so difficult to receive my refugee status, but most asylum seekers struggle and have to wait five to ten years,” she explained. “This saddens me because my time as an asylum seeker in Britain without my family was hard.”
Alone in a city without family, friends, or even much knowledge of English, Majeda turned to cooking with Migrateful, a charity that runs cookery classes led by migrant chefs.
For Syrians, food is an especially important part of national identity. As more arrive in Britain, the popularity of Syrian food is growing, not only in London but also in other areas with sizeable refugee and immigrant communities. A number of restaurants and bakeries have popped up in Scotland, for instance, where nearly a fifth of Syrian refugees have settled since coming to the UK.
“I didn’t work as a chef in Syria, but here food is a good way to communicate with people, to express your feelings,” she said, “This is a good way to integrate.”
What’s more, Majeda pointed out that she wanted to take this opportunity to educate people about how she was forced to leave her country. “For that, they need to know what is really happening in Syria. You can easily go on YouTube to find recipes, but as I talked more about Syria, the people in the cookery class were eager to learn more.”
This is exactly what Migrateful wanted to see. “I was using the charity’s platform to highlight the challenges faced by asylum seekers and refugees in Britain.”
Britain has migrants from places as far afield as Afghanistan and the Philippines, Egypt, and Trinidad. Within each of these communities, food has an important role to play.
Launched in 2017, Migrateful is a social enterprise based in Brixton with a mission to empower and celebrate chefs on their journey to employment and independence. It also promotes contact and cultural exchange with the wider community.
According to founder Jess Thompson, the contribution made to society by migrants and refugees has had a significant and valuable impact. They bring with them traditions, skills, and different palates, all of which are inspiring and innovative.
“The great thing about Britain is the fact that we have so many different cuisines available to us in a city like London, where you can literally get anything you want,” said Jess. “Just reflecting on what our food options would be without the influence of migration feels like quite a good way to start celebrating migrants because everyone loves food. You can have all these negative views around migrants and refugees but when you actually meet a refugee and have really positive interaction with them around sharing food, you start to see them as a fellow human being and base your future beliefs on that interaction rather than what you read in the news.”
More importantly, she added, the classes are a chance to get women together; to give them a place to share their stories and recipes, and to empower them.
Immigration has long been a hot issue, even in multicultural Britain. It was undoubtedly a contributing factor in Britain’s decision to break away from the EU. During the Brexit referendum campaign in 2016, Britons were told that leaving would allow the country to “take back control” of “our borders” and immigration.
“The ‘leave’ vote happened in the year that I was looking to set up Migrateful, and the fact that immigration was cited as a reason why people wanted to leave the EU was a complete shock,” said Jess. “Essentially, we all need to understand that no one leaves their home and their country unless things are so bad that it’s worth taking what is often a huge risk.”
Having worked on the migration front line in a refugee camp in Ceuta, a Spanish enclave in northern Morocco, as well as at the Dunkirk refugee camp, Jess was distraught that so many people risk their lives, and so many die during dangerous sea crossings. This made her determined to return to Britain and carry on supporting refugees.
“Migrateful was a way in which I thought I could challenge the populist rhetoric that migration is a negative thing. I mean, the British cuisine, in my opinion, and a lot of other people’s opinion, is not the most exciting is it?”
After being introduced to Migrateful, Majeda signed up without hesitation. Since her six-month detention in Damascus in 2013, inserting her activism into every activity, including cooking, is imperative. “Showing the world the atrocities that the Assad regime has committed is very important. That detention centre wasn’t fit for animals. It is one of the most dangerous in the country. After being raped and tortured, many prisoners don’t get out alive.”
The most important dish she taught her class at Migrateful was for an event with 100 guests in attendance. It was a simple thin soup that she calls ‘siege soup’, the only meal available to civilians trapped in Eastern Ghouta and other areas surrounded by Syrian armed forces loyal to Assad.
“That soup was all there was to eat in the besieged Eastern Ghouta camps and I wanted to deliver a little taste of their struggles,” said Majeda. “I also highlighted the medical and humanitarian issues inside the camps to make the people speak up for them.”
The camps have contaminated water, insufficient food, and medicine, and the tents don’t keep out the rain. Hundreds have died from lack of medical care, unsafe conditions, and camp violence.
The Migrateful event ended successfully with every guest signing and sending a letter to their local MP imploring the British government to take action.
“I have always done everything I can with my knowledge and skills here in Britain because my goal is to change the stereotypical image of migrants,” concluded Majeda Khoury. “What I want people to remember is that everyone has the right to feel safe. If you invest in migrants and refugees, they can contribute their skills towards this country and also go back and help to rebuild their own.”