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Kairos Kitchen: a healing space for migrant women in Paisley

Publication: Migrant Women Press

Reflecting on her own experiences in the asylum system, Laura Ndanuko reports on the impact of a community-led women's cooking group in Paisley.

Samira and Thaveshni from Kairos Kitchen doing some cooking
Samira and Thaveshni cooking at Kairos Kitchen | Photo by Juliana da Penha | Licensed for use on Scottish Beacon | All rights reserved

How a cookery group helps Black, Asian, minority ethnic and migrant women to build friendships, learn from each other’s cultures and overcome adversities from the hostile immigration policies. 

Moving to a new country and living in a new area can be scary and lonely, with long – and sometimes sad – days.

While awaiting Home Office decisions, people seeking asylum face many negative experiences. These include being stripped of rights, not being allowed to work, and not feeling part of the society they now live in. This can have adverse effects on mental health and wellbeing.

In my experience, things started to change when, due to my deteriorating mental health, my GP referred me to a community link worker. In a matter of days, the link worker sent me an email information about community activities ranging from choirs, singing groups, gardening projects, sewing classes and crafts.

While looking at the long list, I did not only have to consider distance, but if I could afford the bus fare too. If the commute seemed complicated, I chose not to go.

I was so excited to learn about Kairos Women+. Located in Paisley, it was only a ten-minute walk from my place. I called to register and the phone call felt like a warm hug; I could already feel the positive energy.

When I visited, I was introduced to different activities and on some participants were planning a new cookery class – I was right on time to join Kairos Kitchen, a recipe-sharing group for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic women and non-binary people.

For me, it was the first step to a journey of confidence, friendship, new skills and happiness.

A second home for community members

Kairos Women+ is a community-led, women’s space, which provides a safe space for women and non-binary people, creating opportunities through workshops, events, training and courses. Annie Tothill, Project Manager explains what makes it different:

“Kairo’s feels like a second home for many members that come here and instantly feel welcomed. We are trying to build a community that’s different from other typical services and breaking down the “service user and service provider” dynamics by building strong relationships and letting people lead themselves, lead the activities to gain skills and confidence.”

Annie has seen the cookery project grow from an idea in 2019 into its current form. The pandemic meant it did not develop as planned, but Annie and the participants did not give up. Instead they shared recipes and videos of them cooking at home, documenting them on social media and in the first Kairos’s Kitchen recipe book.

More than just a cookery group

Cooking vegetable biryani
Cooking vegetable biryani at Kairos Kitchen | Photo by Juliana da Penha | Licensed for use on Scottish Beacon | All rights reserved

Every Thursday, over a 10-12 week block, Kairos Kitchen members take turns learning from each other. The current participants are women from Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, and Nigeria. They also have staff members and volunteers who bring their recipes from Mexico, the Philippines, India and Scotland.

Each week, a self-nominated participant suggests a recipe, and the staff organise the ingredients and put the recipe together for the next session. The person sharing the recipe instructs the group as we go through it step-by-step. As the food simmers, we listen and dance to a music playlist compiling songs from our different backgrounds.

Thaveshni Pillay, Kairos Kitchen community food worker says:

“As much as we come from different countries, culturally, there are so many similarities; when we started to say how we all grew up, how our grannies cooked outside, using fire… Just sharing the stories with someone with having the same experiences is comforting. It’s nostalgic. It makes me less homesick.”

Thaveshni is originally from South Africa. Although she doesn’t have to face the asylum process, she still needs to go through all the stress of a visa process. She joined Kairos at a time in her life when she needed a place to integrate into the community. She became a volunteer and later joined the team leading Kairos Kitchen.

Thaveshni reiterates how participants don’t have to contribute to the cooking but can just come along and sit comfortably without feeling judged. Finding a space where you feel safe and loved can be like medicine for someone in a constant state of worry.

“I feel good. I feel like I’m with my family”, said Samira Rashid, a participant from Tanzania. Since joining the group, she says she has found another family. She did not cook much in her country, but having an opportunity to do it with people who care about her has changed her life. 

When she started participating, she felt scared and powerless. But now she feels free and enjoys showing some dance moves to her favourite music. Her spoken English and confidence have improved too. 

Challenges and the way forward

As the cooking aromas fill the kitchen, music and good energy also radiate throughout the space. The prepared food prepared is shared with non-participants. Heritage and family stories come up as we support, listen and learn from each other.

During Refugee Week, the group shared a meal with other women from around Renfrewshire and shared insights and awareness about migrants, asylum seekers and refugee communities. It made a big impact on attendees.

Although the project brings many benefits for participants, there are still barriers to access, says Annie:

“I think for a lot of people who are going through the migration system in the UK, whether it’s an asylum claim or a visa application, it’s such a chaotic process and very intense. Sometimes it can stop people being able to do a lot of things they want to do.

“Attending to a group regularly is inaccessible because you have to go to the Home Office meetings, and this is too stressful in your mental health, so I think that has a significant impact.”

Annie explains that while Kairos offers travel reimbursement, people still need the cash to get a bus: “It’s a barrier because some people can’t afford to travel. If they’re on asylum support, the bus tickets are your entire money for the day.”

Despite these challenges, Kairos Kitchen’s plan is to grow the group, involving more women and providing them with skills to find jobs. They also want to support women with their asylum applications where possible.

*Mary has been attending Kairos activities for a couple of years. She says cooking with the group makes her feel like she is back home with her family: “ I came into the charity broken, and it gives me a safe space and the opportunity to heal myself; that’s the most important thing.” 

Supporting communities to reconnect with the cultural and religious institutions familiar to them can assist them in maintaining their integrity while building a new identity in a new community. Through these connections, they can access other essential integration resources such as employment, volunteering opportunities, and social network and participate in broader community activities.

Moreover, it helps them to heal from the cruel experiences of the immigration and asylum process and supports their well-being.

Kairos Kitchen chose food, but it might be crafts, music or sports. Giving someone a reason to step out of their thoughts and even leave their bed is a great help.

*name changed

More info about Kairos Women+:

Laura Ndanuko is from Kenya and has lived in the UK since 2018. She is a trainee journalist at Migrant Women Press. 

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