Earlier this year, one of my nearest and dearest asked if I could host a Free to Feed dinner party in celebration of her birthday. I had never heard of Free to Feed, but the prospect of enjoying a cooking class from the comfort of my own kitchen was met with an enthusiastic yes from me. With twelve of us as sous chefs, our teacher Niro cooked a smorgasbord of Tamil dishes, sharing stories from his upbringing along the way. The concept of ‘Free to’ struck a chord, so during the evening I asked Co-Founder, Dan if he’d feature on this blog. He immediately suggested I speak with his wife Loretta instead, claiming she was the inspirational one! A few weeks later, I met Loretta over an early morning coffee and walked away in awe of the impact this determined couple have already made with their relatively new social enterprise.
“During my International Development degree, I completed a subject on global refugees – it was the first time I had properly engaged with the issue. I remember going home after class one day and spending hours on Google trying to figure out how I could reach refugees here and I came across an opportunity to work at a detention centre on Christmas Island.
I was part of a group of young, inexperienced people who went to the island to help with everyday activities. When I arrived, I was in awe of people’s ability to smile, their desire to learn the drums or play soccer and their curiosity about Australian spiders.
I couldn’t quite understand how people kept going despite everything that had happened in their lives. The way they’d been treated. The fact their families were often on the other side of the world in a war-torn country. Despite all of it, they remained hopeful.
I was only 18 and it was a very long and confusing couple of months, but I was incredibly moved by the experience. I wasn’t prepared for the magnitude of emotions or situations I was confronted with, but I learnt a lot about myself and the experiences of refugees. When I came home I started visiting people in detention centres here in Melbourne.
One of the centres, Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation (MITA), was for unaccompanied minors – young people who had either been left orphaned or sent to Australia on behalf of their families in search of a new place to call home. I started doing this regularly and while I wasn’t able to change their situation, I could be there to play cards or share a meal. These small things provide a link to the real world and I formed some incredibly strong bonds with people just by being there. In fact, Niro who ran your cooking class was someone I met at MITA.
After our son was born, my husband, Dan and I moved to Europe where I worked for a gender justice organisation. I was mainly doing admin and with the high influx of refugees in Europe at that stage, I felt helpless. I had all of this experience after years working at the Australian Red Cross, Life Without Barriers and a stint in Cairo working with victims of child trafficking. I could have been using these skills on the front-line, but instead I was working in an unfulfilling role.
This is when a major shift in my thinking happened and Free to Feed was born.
Free to Feed is a pop-up cooking school, run from cafes, community centres and people’s homes, with all classes run by refugees and asylum seekers.
While Dan and I toyed with the idea of operating in Europe, Melbourne seemed the perfect place to launch. I already had connections in the asylum seeker and refugee space, and the city, of course, has a penchant for multicultural food.
Initially, I called on a group of young Afghan guys who I’d met years earlier when they had first come to Australia seeking asylum. I remembered they could barbecue so, they ended up doing a cooking trial for me and some friends – and the ideas flowed from there.
People who are seeking asylum and refugee status have great difficulty finding meaningful employment so recognising their skills is incredibly empowering.
Instead of facing limited prospects, our teachers suddenly have hundreds of people coming to their classes and wanting to learn from them. Free to Feed flips the charity script.
When the news gets messy and people get racist, this sort of work puts a human face on the issue.
We recently held a series of classes in Bendigo, where there had been all these anti-mosque protests – many people had no idea what was actually going on or what they believed. They weren’t sure whether they wanted to welcome refugees because they hadn’t actually met one – but, our classes gave them the opportunity to do just that. Food has a wonderful ability to break down social barriers and bring people together.
When our teachers reflect on their early experience in Australia, we hope we have contributed to making them feel welcome and connected.
One of my favourite parts of this job, is those first moments when we engage with a new employee and have a cooking trial. I’ll often sit in the kitchen with them while they cook so I can learn about them, their dishes and their story. In this low key, intimate setting we can really connect and it reminds me why I started working in the sector to begin with.
Life remains really hard for our teachers. Most of them don’t have resolution on their immigration status so their life is in flux and they’re under a lot of stress. Sometimes we feel like we can’t do enough.
Niro is a good case in point. He is very much a part of Australian society – he works a few jobs and he’s so ready to be here – but there’s nothing we can really do for him in terms of immigration.
Over the time that I’ve been following the refuge debate it seems to shift depending on the government of the day, but the changes are never very significant. There are subtle nods towards a more humanitarian approach and obviously, no one really wants people to risk their lives, but the highest levels of government aren’t really trying to come up with a better solution.
The approach we have at the moment, is hurting a lot of people by using them as an example. I don’t know what the answer is, but that doesn’t mean that the experts can’t come up with a more viable and humane solution. There seem to be some pretty inspiring receptions coming out of Europe where they recognise the massive contribution that can be made by people seeking asylum.
The issues are bigger than us and beyond what Free to Feed can help with. But who knows, maybe slowly, we can create a more positive and welcoming environment.”