Cooking Our Way to Community With Migrateful

With a mission to empower refugees by supporting them in the running of their own cookery classes, Migrateful helps them to share their local cuisines and become part of a community. Beatrice Murray-Nag chats to founder Jess Thompson about how it all began.

Food is one thing that unites us all, and Migrateful founder Jess Thomson knows a thing or two about using it to break barriers. Her social initiative helps refugees find their feet in the UK by training them to teach 90-minute cookery classes, sharing stories about their home countries and culture as well as their local cuisine and ingredients. 

In a country where the conversation about migration is evermore dominated by negative perceptions, Migrateful aims to turn the relationship on its head by empowering migrants to teach their skills and highlighting the culture that they bring to the community. Participants learn to cook a selection of natural dishes from the chef’s home country, before sitting down to enjoy a meal together at the end of the course. “It’s quite a unique thing to bring a group of strangers together like that in London,” explains Jess. 

After starting in June 2017, Migrateful has now run around 500 cookery classes with 5000 participants, taught by chefs from 30 different countries. They host a weekly chef training group for any refugee with a passion for cooking to train them up to become professional cookery class teachers. Over two years after it all began, Jess looks back at her journey so far, and the way in which something so simple as food has become a tool for education, empowerment and integration.

What inspired you to start Migrateful?

I’d been working abroad in a refugee camp in Ceuta, which is a northern enclave in Morocco. I went out to teach English and then got very involved because there were a lot of French-speaking West African migrants and all the NGOs were Spanish-speaking. That’s what I did my degree in, so I had a lot of work translating. I’d also been to Dunkirk refugee camp and seen what was happening there. There were a lot of migrants that were dying, coming over by sea, and I was quite emotionally affected by that.

I was then keen to come back to the UK but also to carry on supporting refugees. I started a course called the Year Here Fellowship, which helps you to pilot business ideas that could support people on the frontlines that are facing different challenges. I started working with a group of refugee women who had all left behind very successful careers in their home countries and were struggling to find work. That was normally because their qualifications weren’t recognised and because they didn’t speak English well. I was running a skill exchange project and I asked all of the refugee women: “What skill would you like to share with your community?” There were women from ten different countries and all of them said the same thing: “I’d love to teach my community how to cook – that’s something that I feel that I’m very good at.” So that was where the idea started, because I saw that it was a skill they all had, and I knew there would be lots of people who would love to learn how to cook their cuisines

What does Migrateful set out to do? 

There are two aspects to the kind of change that we are trying to create in the world. The first one is just helping refugees to integrate and practice English. A lot of them don’t have the right to work while they are waiting to get their status from the Home Office so it can be a really life-changing thing for them to be able to teach a cookery class and completely flip the power dynamic around; a lot of them say that they have gone from feeling like the bottom of society, not able to work, with no friends, to suddenly feeling like the leader of a group. And that really changes how they feel about themselves. The second thing is trying to challenge negative perceptions of migration. Attending a cookery class taught by a refugee is a very positive interaction. The idea is that we see migration as something to celebrate rather than a negative thing which is often how the media portray it.

Was there something in particular that led you to use food and cookery as a way to connect people?

I guess it’s about challenging negative perceptions. Everyone loves food so it’s a very easy way for people to relate and think about what makes us human, connecting in the things that make us similar rather than different. In this country, we love food from around the world and it’s so clearly a positive thing that migration brings to this country. Also, the act of cooking together is a great way for people to meet each other because there is always a shared task and so it works very well as a team building activity. 

What do you think are the biggest problems that migrants in London face at the moment?

Of course it depends from case to case, but if someone has a pending asylum claim (which for some of our chefs can take up to ten years to get), you’re not receiving benefits and you’re not legally able to legally work, so you become completely destitute. And that takes away their ability to live in a dignified way. It’s really sad because these are very skilled, educated people who just want to work and integrate and make friends, and the system is not allowing them to do that. It really comes down to the policy of the Home Office as the main obstacle.

In what ways do the classes benefit the people who are teaching them? 

It’s about building confidence and increasing English levels through conversations, because I think to really get good at a language you need to just be regularly speaking it. It also means that they can earn money – it could be their first job in the UK, and we write a lot of references to help them go on to get other jobs. If they don’t have the right to work they receive a solidarity fund from us, which is a weekly grant to pay for their basic living costs. There’s also the aspect of community – often they make really important connections at the cookery classes who might be able to offer them jobs or legal contacts. And then the actual community itself at the training group becomes a very important network for them.

Do you have any personal highlights from your journey with Migrateful so far?

There was one particular woman, and things just hadn’t played out in the way she had expected since she moved to the UK. She had a very well paid, respected job in Nigeria but brought her family over because she wanted to be close to her sister after her mother passed away. She had not been able to get her immigration status so that she could legally work, and for 12 years she was facing getting detained. She was living in secret and was extremely worried about her children.

The first time she taught a Migrateful cookery class, she said that it connected her back to that really powerful, respected woman that she knew she was back in Nigeria. She had sort of forgotten that that part of her even existed because it’s just such a degrading experience not to be given legal status in this country. These stories are very touching because I hadn’t really realised how life changing the experience would be for the people that we are working with until I really saw it in action and heard their feedback. 

Have you had to overcome any challenges along the way?

There were a lot of challenges in the sense that I had no catering experience and no business experience before I started Migrateful, so I’ve essentially learnt everything on the job! I knew that the idea worked and that the customers and the chefs loved it, but actually getting all the systems in place and learning how to manage a team was quite a stressful process. For the first year and a half I couldn’t pay myself so I was working two other jobs and the workload felt quite unmanageable at times. But now I’ve been full time since January and we’re making 83% of our income from our cookery class sales which is really great.

What is in the pipeline for Migrateful in 2020?

We just launched in Bristol this week, and we’ll be running classes in Kent too. We’re just building our replication model to see whether we can carry it out in different parts of the country, and it seems to be working. At the moment we are running ten classes a week in London and they are all selling out, so it’s definitely working there. We just want to see if we can go to other parts of the country where there might be even more of a need for these sorts of integration initiatives.

The other thing we’d like to do is run subsidised cookery classes in lower economic background areas where again, there might be more of a need for integration. So perhaps going into a council estate and running cookery classes there to try and encourage really positive community relations through food. And also really helping our chefs to go on to start their own businesses. We want them to move on to employment or self-employment, so we are looking at ways to develop those pathways post Migrateful. 

How do you think in the future cooking and food is going to help us to overcome borders and promote integration? 

Food is something that everyone needs and so it’s an easy way to get people to connect. I think as the amount of refugees coming to the West increases for lots of different reasons, especially climate change, the host nation needs to get a lot better at finding ways to support their integration. When they arrive, they are in a very vulnerable position and not able to speak English, they don’t know the system at all. So without us actually making this effort, it’s not going to work.

That’s why I see it as such an important thing that people in this country are making an effort to come to these cookery classes and really welcome the refugees into this country. It’s a two-way thing; they get to enjoy a really delicious meal, they learn new skills and they get to learn about a new culture. Our emphasis is really on what an amazing aspect having these people in this country actually is.