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People empowering refugee community projects

Watching from the distance of a television screen, many people are left feeling powerless in the wake of the global refugee crisis. But some community social movements are proving that it is possible to make a real impact. From seeds of ideas, projects supporting refugees are springing into life and implementing change.

The Refugee Community Kitchen

Forced to flee their homes, refugees in northern Europe face nothing but uncertainty about their future. The ‘jungle’ has been demolished and the tents torn down. The inhabitants, however, remain. They are still displaced, still left without shelter, and are still facing the same issues.

One humanitarian mission is offering something vital to refugee communities - food. In 2015, four ordinary people with a range of skills came together to form the Refugee Community Kitchen, and have expanded ever since. The volunteer-run organisation has cooked over 570,000 meals for refugees in Northern Europe since 1st December 2015. Generous donations have kept the project going, and allowed the group to buy exactly what they need.

Twice a day, huge bowls of rice, curry-style dishes, and fresh salad are piled high on plates. Alongside cooking highly nutritious meals, the kitchen sets out to offer food that will be accessible to all the different cultures in the community.

Co-founder Paula Gallardo said: “We basically try to cover the cultural differences of the people we service, and this is mainly achieved by how we cook the rice.”

Alongside the main meal, is a condiment table rich with diverse flavours: onions, coriander, chilli, lemon, olives and hummus. From this spread, refugees can season their plates to their cultural taste.

Paula Gallardo said: “It gives people some dignity in being able to make choices about what they want to taste that day.”

The meals are adapted quickly, as seasons change and so too do the needs of the people. Crisp salads are brought out as spring gives way to the heat of summer, and vegetables are brought to the table when the cold of winter snaps.

Camp demolitions have posed a challenge, even for this reactive group. With no shelter, refugees have been left without any means of cooking an evening meal. Quick to form a solution, the Refugee Community Kitchen now hands out compostable boxes, packed with more nutritious food.

The co-founder said that the impact on people’s lives goes beyond the basic need of having enough to eat: “The biggest impact has been respect and dignity.”

She said that there is no judgement, there are no difficult questions, only “respect of their journey, respect of their needs.”

Refugee Community Kitchen

Too many chefs? Never.

The continuation of this project, and with it the promise of something to eat every day, all comes down to the work of volunteers. Just a few hours from London, they are a world away from the familiar surroundings of home. Many come to the kitchen in a bid to do something positive, to overcome the feeling of powerlessness they have as they see war rage on the news. For them, this is an opportunity to do something, and to make a difference.

This wave of positive action sends ripples that reach beyond the camps, beyond the individual volunteers. Back home in the UK are plenty more people who are given the opportunity to help in their own way.

As each volunteer sets up crowdfunding, posts on their social media, or arranges a fundraiser, their own network of friends and family is presented with a simple way to get involved. As they watch the journey of this volunteer, they can donate money, tents, or time through someone they know - someone they trust.

Paula Gallardo said: “We were just looking for what we could do for the refugees, and now we realise we’ve done a massive amount for the community here, to allow them to feel better about themselves, about what they can put in in this life, to be represented by their feet, by action, by volunteering. And that’s really powerful.”

However, volunteer numbers are dropping. The group is now asking for more people to experience the heat of the Refugee Community Kitchen.

The Growing Together Levenshulme Project

Back on UK soil, a community is growing on an allotment in Levenshulme, Manchester. Growing Together, a gardening project for refugees and asylum seekers, takes nature as its inspiration, and brings people together.

The group meets every Tuesday, where they are offered a positive anchor in an uncertain time, and space for making new friends. Using vegan, organic, permaculture principles, there is a chance to connect with nature and learn new skills.

The community tends to the vegetables packed into the allotment: potatoes, onions, courgettes and aubergines. When harvest time comes around, they are transformed into a community meal. Together, they have learnt to build solar panels, created an indoor space, and entered the allotment show.

There is more to the project than just gardening, and members of the group have reported a positive impact on their mental health.

Henrietta, a participant in the group, said: “I look forward to coming to the garden every Tuesday, because it’s a way of relieving my tension, my stress, and the isolation.”

Founder and volunteer Tom Spencer says the group welcomes anyone negatively affected by the migration system: “I think it’s quite easy in the society we live in for people to get categorised, but for us it’s really important that we see people as individuals, as opposed to labels.”

This is another group reliant on volunteers, and the community numbers can only increase as more people donate their time. Like the projects themselves, what starts as a desire to help can grow into something that leaves a lasting impact.

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