It’s a bright and clear day as we walk through the Elephant & Castle estate towards Migrateful’s test kitchen. Established by it’s founder Jess Thompson (following her experiences working with asylum seekers and refugees across Europe) Migrateful aims to provide a safe space for refugees and asylum seekers alike as they await their work permits for the UK, providing them with legal support, English lessons and employability training in return for public cooking classes hosted the beneficiaries themselves.

The test Kitchen (where Jess and the Migrateful team hold their weekly cooking and planning meetings) is a mere stones throw from the area’s condemned shopping centre, a once vibrant collection of bars, restaurants and shops, which has been a focal point for the areas Latin community as long as anyone can remember. With it’s fate sealed and demolition plan approved, the building seems to provide a stark reminder of the changing landscapes of London, with ethnic communities becoming easily displaced, falling victim to surging prices and regeneration, struggling to find representation in a very confused and uncertain pre-brexit Britain.

Joining us on our visit is North London based R&B vocalist Desta French. Born to an Italian father and Columbian mother in Camden, Desta’s unique brand of music has been turning heads over the past 18 months. Her most recent offering, the ‘Immigracious EP’ saw her drawing on everything from 90’s R&B and Hip Hop to soul classics, infused with a vibrant infectious contemporary twist, moving from electric and neo-soul sounds to the oscillating rhythms and grooves of Latin America. A first generation immigrant herself, she’s very familiar with the challenges facing those arriving in a new country.

After watching Jess lead a brief catch with the 30-40 class participants, we sit down with Jess, Desta and one of their longest active participants, Nigerian chef Betty – who after coming to the UK at age 17 has been waiting 16 years for her right to work in the UK.

Migrateful Eat Hear

EAT HEAR: So, to kick things off – what was your favourite meal as kid?

Desta: My Dad was definitely the best cook – it’s a bit embarrassing really, as I try not to eat pork nowadays, but when I was kid, I would just sit and eat Salami for hours. My Gran from Columbia would come and stay with us for long periods of time and do lots of cooking, there was always beans and Chicarons on the go, so my mum got away with not cooking too much most of the time. My Dad actually also worked in a restaurant in Finsbury park.

Betty: I grew up in Edo State Nigeria, and when I was young my favourite food was fruit. My dad was a farmer and would always bring home pineapple for us. All the kids and my friends would come home from school and always look forward to it. It was so juicy and delicious and reminds me of summer afternoons, it still reminds me of back home. It’s still one of my favourites.

Jess: My mum always made pancakes every Sunday morning, which was the highlight of my week!

EAT HEAR: So Desta you grew up in Camden, is there a big Latino population or community there?

Desta: Not really, I think Camden is more of the strays, then areas like Seven Sisters and Elephant & Castle are more concentrated.

EAT HEAR: Would your family come to areas like Elephant & Castle for more Columbian / Latin food / ingredients?

Desta: Yeah we would, for certain grocery shopping etc – specific ingredients. My parents tended to do their own thing rather than fully hang out with the community as it’s really small and people know each other’s business too much

EAT HEAR: I’ve always found it really interesting how we have this perception nowadays that the world is so globalised, and that we can walk into any supermarket and get whatever we want, but we forget it hasn’t always been that way. If you’d just landed in London from somewhere else, you’d have to figure out where to go to get your ingredients from – you might have to travel across the city to different pockets of London. Have you found that’s still the case with the work you do with Migrateful?

we have this perception nowadays that the world is so globalised, and that we can walk into any supermarket and get whatever we want, but we forget it hasn’t always been that way

Betty: Yes for sure. Some of the things you can get in supermarkets, and these days they are trying, you have big sections for Afro-Caribbean and African stuff. But some for dishes, like pepper soup for example, you can’t get those things in Tescos, so I’ll have to go to one of the local shops for those ingredients. Usually Deptford or Peckham, Brixton they’re the places I usually get my bits from.

EAT HEAR: So, Brixton is an example of an area that’s undergone some huge changes over the past few years, Elephant and Castle is another example of that – with the demolition of the Heygate estate and plans to redevelop the Shopping Centre (which are home to a large number of Columbian and South American restaurants and bars). Which can’t help but displace these communities that have existed for years. It draws a similarity to the work you do with Migrateful, helping to establish new communities in for people who have found themselves displaced. Jess, would you mind talking through the work you do?

Jess: I’d been working in a refugee camp in Morocco for a year, which was a very difficult experience – as lots of people were dying trying to get to Europe, so I was attending a lot of funerals of migrants that had attempted the journey etc. After that I was working in Dunkirk, France at the refugee camp, helping families who had been living in slum conditions for about five years. So I was pretty angry about the treatment of the refugee crisis and the reality of those people experiencing it. So when I got back home, I was looking at ways in which I could support refugees and help them rebuild their lives. I’m a qualified ESL teacher, so I was teaching a group of 10 refugee women who were in a similar situation – they’d been forced to leave their countries and left behind successful careers. They’d then arrived in the UK and couldn’t find work. There were language barriers, and their qualifications didn’t mean the same thing here. 50% of the refugees living in the UK are unemployed, despite being more qualified than the average British person. At the same time, I was working for a homeless charity that supports asylum seekers who have had their claim rejected, so they can’t legally work, aren’t entitled to benefits, and are in a really difficult situation. A combination of working with those different groups, I was running an English class and asked them to bring in a recipe from their country as a way to practise their vocabulary. As we went round the room, everyone was so excited to tell me about their recipe, saying “please come to my house, I’d love to teach this to you”, so that was the idea – using a skill set that they already had to help find a job, a great way to make friends and feel valued. That was a year and half ago, and since then we’ve run 200 classes to over 2000 participants, we also run this weekly chef group which has become an important support network for everyone. Each week we practise different recipes, we do a public speaking and storytelling workshop. Betty is probably better placed to tell you about the benefits of it, but that’s how we set it up.

EAT HEAR: Betty, so what are the main things you’ve taken away from being involved in Migrateful?

Betty: Migrateful has been a safe haven for me. I’ve been with it since it started, and I didn’t have the right to work, that can make you feel like nothing – especially when you want to work. For a very long time that made me feel really miserable. Jess used to work in the department of social housing also, that’s how I met her, I was one of the guests. She told me about the idea, and I loved it – I love food and I love to cook, so after one phone call that was it. Of course you don’t get paid, but it gave you that feeling of doing something, meeting people that would normally not even talk to you in the street. It starts to feel like a job, gives you routine. You see all these people coming together that have been through the same thing as you. Earlier at the meeting a lady said to the group “I just want to be free” and I knew exactly what she meant. It’s not like you’re in prison or anything, but it’s a feeling that a group of people are making a decision on the outcome of your life, and they don’t even know how it’s affecting you, or they don’t care. Like with the home office, I’ve been waiting for god knows how long. I came here when I was 15, now I’m 35. There’s nobody to scream out to about it, so with Migrateful everyone coming together gives you support. Last night, as I was going to my cooking class I got a call from my lawyer (she doesn’t usually call me, I just get an email here and there). She told me that a decision has been made on my case, and that I’m eligible to work. I’ve dreamt of that moment for the past ten years. When I got that call I was crying, not tears of sadness but just that feeling of “okay, now what”. It still hasn’t really set in, I know it’s another chapter and another challenge for me. Migrateful have kept me from feeling isolated, and feeling like I didn’t belong. It’s all thanks to this wonderful lady here. It’s helped me build a sense of identity.

EAT HEAR: Desta, I know identity was a big inspiration on your most recent EP ‘Immigracious’, can you tell us a bit about that?

Desta: There seems to be a lot of stigma surrounding immigration at the moment. Brexit seems to be happening, and there’s an opinion that a lot of immigrants just want to come here to be on benefits and not work. But I know from first hand experience that this isn’t the case. I’m a product of two people that emigrated to this country, and I’m alright. I feel like I’m contributing to the country and to culture etc. It’s a great thing as a country, to represent a wider demographic, because that is the world that we live in. I just came back from Columbia, and they think it’s amazing – it’s helping to open them up to our culture, and I think that’s how it needs to be. It’s nothing but a beautiful thing to share influences.

EAT HEAR: Jess, did this stigma affect your decision in setting up Migrateful?

Jess: Yeah, I mean in terms of the impact we’re trying to achieve, we’re trying to improve the lives of our chefs and to help integrate them as best we can. Whether that’s by providing English lessons, employability training and so forth. But the second aspect is changing perceptions around migration. For example, if a corporate company employs us to do a cookery class, a lot of the employees have never come into contact with a refugee. So it’s a way to facilitate interaction between people, and food is a great way to overcome those barriers – everyone loves to eat together.When the Brexit vote happened I was devastated. I felt like it was a vote that none of my generation wanted, so one level I think setting up Migrateful was me trying to do something about that and put across that migration is something that’s so important for our society, and that England would really be lacking without it, in terms of all the influences of food, music and culture in general. It’s a celebration of what migrant culture brings to the UK.

EAT HEAR: What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned since setting this up?

Jess: Today is actually a very big day for me, in terms of what’s happened to Betty. I think part of me found it really difficult to see the hope for her at times. 19 years she’s been waiting, unable to work, unable to use her talents in a way that she deserves and start her life. I thought there was a limit to how much I could help someone like Betty, because we can do all the fun cookery classes we like, but ultimately if the home office won’t give her status, it’s hard for her to live the life she deserves. We’re only a year and a half old, but seeing one of our first chefs move into the next phase where she can start to build her life, it’s so exciting. So I think the biggest lesson has been in keeping the hope when it feels hopeless. She’s the fourth chef to have gotten their status since they’ve been with us.

EAT HEAR: Congratulations Betty, it’s such amazing news for you. Who’s been your best friend since you started here?

Betty: Oh my god, lots of best friends – it’s like the united nations here! But I’ve got one mummy here – her name is Lola. I call her mum, She’s got lots of daughters at Migrateful.

Jess: I feel like we should get Lola to come in, but she doesn’t speak much English – she’s Cuban. We did a big event last week, and Lola led a salsa workshop.We are then introduced to Lola, the 73 year old Cuban mother of the Migrateful community – a warm and friendly lady with a mischievous demeanor.

With Desta acting as a translator, she regails us with stories of working as a vet in Cuba and having to stop people stealing cows to get an extra portion of meat (beef is primarily kept for tourists in Cuba). She ends the interview with laughs and smiles all around. As we leave the church and stand outside in the dappled light, we congratulate Betty again on entering her next life chapter as she begins to look for work in the UK.

As Jess, Betty and Lola head inside to finish the cooking class, we’re left pondering the day’s events. Migrateful’s work drives home the importance of community in testing times, being able to rely on those around you – however it does shed light on how segregated our lives can be. Many of us are guilty of falling into the social echo chamber trap of our peer groups,but it’s become painfully apparent over recent time that people across the UK have disparate views of immigration.

Hearing stories like those of Betty, Jess and Desta’s highlight the huge benefits that other cultures bring to the UK, building and enriching communities – from culture to music and food. We’re also left in awe of the work Jess is doing with Migrateful, breaking bread and bringing people together.


To find out more about Migrateful and their cooking classes go to:

Listen to Desta French’s ‘Immigracious EP’ here:

About The Author

Josh Byrne

Josh Byrne

Head chef at both High Praise and XVI Records, Josh has been involved in releasing and promoting electronic music for the past ten years. Currently handling PR & Radio for a number of labels, Josh also DJ's by night - and consults for creative agencies on trends within music subcultures, providing up to date insights from the forefront of the scene.

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