Lewisham’s Refugee Cafe brings cuisine from around the world to your table

Christmas hampers are available on the Refugee Cafe website. Pic: Refugee Cafe

After bringing Ecuadorian Chimichurri and Persian Jam to our markets and Syrian banquets to our tables, Lewisham’s community project, Refugee Café, is drawing this year to a close with a bright future ahead of it. Now, they’re getting ready to bring their talents straight to your dining room with their private catering service.  

Founder Iolanda Chirico said: “That’s a very good way to support us in the Christmas period, when people are inviting more friends to their homes to celebrate. We can cook for them, and they can give employment to local refugees.” 

Chirico, originally from Italy, started the Refugee Café in November 2019 with the simple intention to “empower local refugees to secure meaningful employment in the catering industry”. Hosting dinners and selling artisan products made by refugees who have been uprooted from their countries of origin, coming from as far as Lebanon, Syria and Vietnam, the Refugee Café intends to raise funds and awareness among the Lewisham community and beyond to provide purpose, security and a sense of community.  

In February 2020, the Refugee Café hosted their first fundraiser community dinner with local restaurant Parlez in Brockley, who allowed them to use the venue for free. Alongside the Damascus Chef of South London, they gave a Syrian Feast with live music and raffle prizes, with gifts crafted by the refugees, raising over £2,000. Chircio tells ELL: “We sold out the dinner in less than a week. It was very, very good. Over 70 guests came.” 

She said: “The plan was we were going to open a physical café for Lewisham Library by April 2020, but then, as you know, the pandemic started – we had to stop everything, basically, and we had to rethink our business model.” After being forced into inaction due to the first national lockdown, they decided the best way to progress was to diversify by running live cooking demonstrations online, where attendees could learn how to make Baba Ganoush and the classic Syrian salad, Fattoush. In that year, they managed to raise a total of £9,000 from markets, fairs and online sales.  

The hampers will be sold at £30 each, and will include Syrian biscuits, Yemeni tea, pumpkin jam, chilli paste, chimichurri and pickled lemons. Pic: Refugee Cafe

Ismail, a refugee from Syria working with the project, said: ““Working at the Refugee Café has made me part of the local community. I lost my job and had nothing to do and I was so bored staring at the ceiling all day, not able to leave my room because of the pandemic. I was happy when I started to cook the products, and I am so happy to know they are selling well. I am happy to create new products and share the wonderful cuisine from my country.”  

Having since gained thousands of followers on social media, Refugee Café have been recognised as an officially registered charity, trading condiments including hummus, pickles and chilli paste at RARE Market in Woolwich every Saturday, as well as a pop-up stall in Catford Mews aiming to boost refugees’ skills in sales and customer service.  

But now, the Refugee Café is gaining momentum after the pandemic knock back. Having run the project exclusively from her kitchen, Chirico tells ELL: “We are still looking for premises for a physical café. In the long term, we would like to open one run completely by local refugees. We have to just keep looking. The plan is to open something – even a pop-up somewhere – by next spring.” 

Until then, the Refugee Café has started their new training programme after securing funding. Spanning eight weeks, refugees will be learning about the theory of the catering industry, as well as CV writing and how to approach different businesses alongside bringing in guest speakers to host workshops, giving peer-to-peer support.  

Rose Berwick, the Training Coordinator, said: “Refugees and migrants are so over-represented in the unemployment figures, and that’s what the training programme is all about: to bridge the gap between somebody having amazing experience in cooking in their country of origin, but not having necessarily the knowledge to do that in the UK. It’s all about empowering people to use their own skills and experience by giving them that stepping stone into employment.” 

In the meantime, alongside hiring their chefs for your seasonal dinner parties, you can buy their Christmas hampers for the first time this year, as well as biscuit tins, Christmas cards and boxes of Syrian truffles.  

For more information about the Refugee Café, visit their website.  

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