‘I miss my hometown, my friend – and my mum’s delicious food’: the cookbook made by refugees

Far from their families in Afghanistan, Iran, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Chad, the young authors of Cooked with Love have found a way to recreate their favourite meals – and share them with the world

When Suduba Akbari, a former member of the junior Afghan women’s football team, boarded a flight in July 2021 to escape the Taliban, she probably could not imagine that 18 months later she would be spending an evening as a VIP guest at Leeds Civic Hall. Next month, however, in the same building where the Queen’s death and King’s proclamation were formally announced, Akbari and 29 other unaccompanied minor asylum seekers, along with social workers, carers and city officials, will gather to celebrate the completion of a year-long cookery book project called Cooked with Love.

Originally conceived by social worker and Leeds city’s lead for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, Louise Sidibe, Cooked with Love involves groups of young refugees from Afghanistan, Iran, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Chad. Without exception, every one of the people involved has endured unimaginable hardship and loss.

Ali Saleh Sany, for instance, arrived in the UK in 2021, at the age of 15, in the back of a lorry he had smuggled himself on to in Belgium. Sitting in his bedroom in Leeds last week, wearing a baseball cap and red T-shirt, Saleh Sany could be mistaken for a typical British teenager, but in fact he spent his life in refugee camps in Sudan and Chad.

When he was 14, with the situation in Chad deteriorating, Saleh Sany’s father told his son to escape the country. “I just left, but I didn’t know where I was going,” he explains in a quiet voice. He finally arrived in England, with a mobile phone and his life’s processions in a small backpack, and went straight to the police station. “I was shocked, scared and confused,” he remembers. “But when I got to the police, they were so kind. There are no words to thank them and this country enough.”

Ali Saleh Sany prepares gurasa – a Sudanese flat bread.
Ali Saleh Sany prepares gurasa – a Sudanese flatbread. Photograph: Nicola Fox/The British Library

Another Cooked with Love participant, Mahmood Idris Abdulrahman, arrived in the UK at the age of 17, after a journey that took him from his home in Sudan through Chad, Libya, Malta, Italy and France. He left his family in Sudan after being targeted to join the militia by Janjaweed, the Sudanese Arab militia group which forcibly recruits young boys from refugee camps across the region. Abdulrahman may have escaped, but he worries about his two young brothers who remain in the camp. “When I get strong and have money, I want to bring them here,” he says, looking down and speaking softly. “One is 15 and one is 12 and I care about them a lot.”

For Akbari, now 19, when the Taliban took over in Afghanistan in August 2021, it quickly became clear that female footballers would not be safe. She initially travelled from Herat to Kabul, then escaped to Pakistan with other teammates. “Before the Taliban, it was good for girls and I was improving my football,” she says with conviction. “But when the Taliban came, it broke my heart.” After spending two months in Pakistan, the football team were evacuated to the UK on an airplane funded by Kim Kardashian. Akbari is charming, funny and quick to laugh but her anger and grief remain. “For now, I’ve stopped playing football because I have a bad feeling for my country, for my family and for all the girls left there,” she says.

Ali Saleh Sany’s kebab mula.
Ali Saleh Sany’s kebab mula. Photograph: Nicola Fox/The British Library

When unaccompanied asylum seekers arrive in the UK they are assigned a social worker and legal representative. “They have to produce a statement detailing the difficulties that caused them to leave their homes,” explains Sidibe. “Then, they’re interviewed and they wait for a decision to determine their status.” Besides helping them make their application for refugee status, however, Sidibe and her colleagues advocate, support and nurture the young people in their care. Without exception, every Cooked with Love participant spoke about Sidibe with deep affection. “She’s not just my social worker,” insisted Akbari, “she’s like a mum.”

In large part, the Cooked with Love project is the result of Sidibe and her colleagues’ commitment to the young people in their care. “Food is such a great way to bring people together and it celebrates what’s wonderful about different cultures,” she says when describing what initially inspired the project. “It turned out – and we didn’t expect this – that it’s been a piece of important life-story work, too. Cooking can mediate a conversation because it diverts focus. If someone is talking about trauma while chopping an onion we can put the tears down to the onion and it helps them open up.”

The outcome of 16 in-person workshops and seven online sessions between March 2021 and July 2022, Cooked with Love was delivered as a partnership between the British Library, Leeds Children and Families Social Work Service and Child Friendly Leeds. Over the course of a year, groups of young people from different countries met at Herd Farm Activity Centre, among the hills on the outskirts of Leeds, to remember, recreate, photograph and eat their favourite recipes from home.

The contributors the Cooked with Love cookbook.
‘It’s like a window into the young people’s worlds’ … the contributors to Cooked with Love. Photograph: Nicola Fox/The British Library

The resulting recipe book is organised by country with 110 pages of colourful photographs of food and the project participants cooking, eating, laughing and goofing about. “It’s like a window into the young people’s worlds,” reflects Sidibe. “Not just the trauma they’ve been through, their positive memories and the things they love and miss about home too.”

The Cooked with Love book makes for a joyous read and is packed full of clear, tantalising recipes, but it is also deeply moving. Each chapter starts with brief testimonials from all the young people involved, small snapshots of what they have left behind and the longing they must endure. Millen Asmerom, an 18-year-old Eritrean girl, decided to cook dinch wot, a potato stew made with 12 onions. “What is special about our culture is that we sit and eat together,” she explains in her short biography. “Growing up, I remember that we would always cook outside, and there would usually be two or three people cooking and helping each other.”

Nineteen-year-old Mina Eshani came to the UK from Iran two years ago, but her continuing sense of loss is palpable: “I really miss my hometown. I miss my school friend Zahra. I miss the sunny weather, the parties, Eid celebrations, weddings and festivals. The thing I miss the most is my mum’s delicious food.” A few pages along, Eshani has written out her recipe for potato and spinach flatbreads served with a cucumber, garlic and yoghurt sauce. Making the flatbread, “can be a little tricky, but it is worth it,” she assures the reader.

For her contribution, Akbari chose to make chicken korma, a dish she associates with her mum and sister, who remain in Herat. “I wanted to show people how delicious Afghan food is,” she explains with a broad smile. “If people know about the food, it might change their mind about my country.”

Suduba Akbari’s chicken korma.
Suduba Akbari’s chicken korma. Photograph: Nicola Fox/The British Library

Nineteen-year-old Khalil Hamid Issa, who left Chad at the age of 13, has similar hopes for the cookery book. “People here ask me where Chad is and they have no idea,” he says. “They don’t know there are mountains and forests and beautiful places there.” Perhaps, he hopes, people will read his recipes for fried plantain and karkadji (nutty spinach and lamb stew) and be encouraged to find out more.

“The project is about the young people’s food and culture, of course,” explains Thahmina Begum, the artist and trainee art psychotherapist who coordinated the groups’ cooking sessions. “But it’s also about being part of a team and a feeling of belonging.” Begum’s own background as a second-generation Bangladeshi Muslim woman is, she believes, significant. “With all the groups, they were fascinated with me having a broad Yorkshire accent and wearing a hijab,” she says, laughing. “I’d tell them about my parents coming in the 50s and me being an artist. It was important they saw that I am part of this country.”

Khalil Hamid Issa prepares fried plantain.
Khalil Hamid Issa prepares fried plantain, a recipe he enjoyed in Chad. Photograph: Nicola Fox/The British Library

Belonging, of course, works in many ways. The project’s official evaluation document states that an aim of Cooked with Love was to foster the young people’s “cultural and civic participation”. Besides spending days together cooking and eating, the different country cohorts took trips to visit Leeds City Museum or the British Library in London. At the British Library, young Eritrean women were shown around by a curator who told them the library belonged to everyone. According to Sidibe, the girls thought this was hugely amusing and spent the rest of the day saying: “Do you know I own a library in London?” The British Library’s Cooked with Love partner, Elvie Thompson, felt the trips to the libraries and museums were an important part of the project. “I want every young person to feel that they could not only visit,” she says. “I want them to imagine that one day they might write the books there, that they could be part of it.”

For Carl Pollard, a carer who, with his partner, Sharon Pearson, has looked after unaccompanied minor asylum seekers in Leeds for five years, food is a vital tool for connection and communication. “Smell and taste go right to the soul of people,” he says. “When you don’t speak the language, it’s the one thing you can share.” Three of the young people involved with Cooked with Love have lived with Pollard and Pearson. According to Pollard, the ceremony happening at Civic Hall is vital. “It’s a key building, at the centre of our city,” he states with conviction. “It’s not the corner shop, it’s where important things happen and that includes these young people talking about their recipes.”

Pearson hopes that the Cooked with Love project will help people understand why refugees come to the UK. “There’s a lot of bad press about migrants coming to this country,” she reflects. “But for a young person to run from their country and their mum and dad at 12 or 13 is horrific.” The refugees who stay with Pearson and Pollard become part of the family and keep in touch even after they have moved into independent accommodation. “The young people we see do a huge amount of hard work to get to a place where they can contribute to the UK,” says Pollard. “We’ve seen this happen over and over.”

Khalil Hamid Issa’s fried plantain.
Khalil Hamid Issa’s fried plantain. Photograph: Nicola Fox/The British Library

The refugees involved with Cooked with Love all have clear plans for the future. Akbari hopes to join the army or police or to become a politician. Abdulrahman wants to study business at university and Hamid Issa, who loves movies, would like to be an actor or director. For Saleh Sany, who wants to work in IT or become an engineer, the idea of imagining a future is still strange. “To be honest, this question still shocks me,” he says. “When I was in Chad and Sudan, I didn’t have any dreams because there is no future, but when I got here I started dreaming.” Saleh Sany’s father, the person who encouraged him to escape Chad, died a few years ago. “I know my dad would be happy I’m here,” he says, wiping his eyes. “He would want this future for me.”

Across the groups involved with Cooking with Love, cooking knowledge varied. The young Eritrean women wielded knives and chopped whole sacks of onions like professional chefs. On discovering that Herd Farm had no pressure cooker, Akbari, who learned to cook from her mum, made a stiff dough out of flour and water, moulded a thick crust around a pan and its lid and created a homemade version without batting an eye. Short of skewers for his mutasha (barbecued lamb and fish), Youssouf Mohamed, who comes from Chad, procured sticks from a nearby tree.

Winta Habtestion makes hilbet.
Winta Habtestion makes hilbet. Photograph: Nicola Fox/The British Library

For some, however, the Cooked with Love project was a chance to learn new food skills. Saleh Sany’s experience of cooking, for instance, was limited to the food he made while waiting in France to hitch a ride on a lorry bound for the UK. “It was very simple, just enough for energy, nothing else,” he says. As a result, when he arrived in Leeds he could not cook. “This project was so great,” he says with a beaming smile. “Before I didn’t have any knowledge about making Sudanese food, but the other boys taught me and so now I know what to cook and how to shop.”

Beyond providing an opportunity for skill-sharing among the Cooked for Love participants, Sidibe thinks the recipe book will help separated children in the future too. “We are seeing a lot more young people come to Leeds through the National Transfer System in Kent,” she explains. “They may well not know how to cook or they may have been travelling so long they might have forgotten.” Moreover, Sidibe reflects, new arrivals often know nothing about Leeds; the Cooked with Love recipe book will reassure them that the city is welcoming and diverse.

Reflecting on the daylong sessions at Herd Farm, Begum remembers music blasting, raucous laughter and lots of chatting. “These children share being asylum seekers,” she says, “but they are just like any other teenagers and they love to talk about football, music, makeup and clothes.” The Cooked with Love project uses the shared language of food to celebrate and recognise a group of ordinary teenagers, who also happen to be completely extraordinary. As Sidibe says in the introduction to the project’s recipe book: “How lucky we are to now have them living in Leeds.”

• The Cooked with Love recipe book will be given away at the Leeds Civic Hall celebration and a pdf can be downloaded for free from the project website.


Polly Russell

The GuardianTramp

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