There is room for all at the Hub Café in Rugby where refugees from 15 countries cook, socialise and learn English, writes the Revd Jane Gaffney.

there-is-room-world-kitchen3A few years ago, our church hosted a course run by the charity Livability. Those attending were challenged to think about not doing things for others (our usual mentality, at which our church is brilliant) but instead to walk alongside people, empowering them to take the lead, because it is only through this that lasting change happens. This change of thinking led us to take a different approach in our work with the local community.

During the pandemic, our church started to befriend a Syrian family who had moved to Rugby five years ago. The mother and others from the Syrian community started to regularly volunteer in our café. We noticed the joy they had in being able to cook and share some of their own food, and we certainly loved the new recipes! Encouraged by this and inspired by the Heart & Parcel organisation in Manchester (which brings immigrants together to cook and learn English) the idea of World Kitchen was birthed.

People from ethnic groups within Rugby who might be socially isolated were invited to come and cook their own food in our café. They were the hosts and we were the guests. This represented a huge shift in power dynamics and was a very humbling and enriching experience.

there-is-room-world-kitchen2Successful pilot scheme

In November 2021 we received grant funding from Warwickshire County Council to run a pilot with three World Kitchen events. We used the grant money to run food hygiene courses and buy induction hobs, pans and store cupboard ingredients. Most importantly, the host cooks had £20 supermarket vouchers to buy their own ingredients. Along with our Syrian families we invited others who were socially isolated and refugees staying in a local hotel (all young men).

At these first events we enjoyed food from Syria, Yemen, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, Iraq and England (rhubarb crumble!). The aroma was incredible! The food was fantastic and so was the atmosphere: there was joy, passion, laughter and an incredible sense of community. Our Syrian ladies invited family and friends and we were so proud to be able to include them. One friend, an Algerian Muslim lady, who was very nervous initially of coming into the church said of her first visit “I have been so welcomed.”

After the initial pilot, we received further funding to continue and so we were able to include refugee families living in a different hotel close to the town and we found numbers increased way beyond our capacity. It was messy; it felt crazy, but it was so good. Some of the men went on to become volunteers in the café, desperate to have something to do with their time, and friendships have grown.

One of the painful outcomes is the speed at which refugees can be relocated to other cities. We feel the loss of no longer seeing our friends, but we hope and pray that the welcome they have experienced with us has given them hope to be part of their new community. Of course, we continue to welcome new arrivals.

English classes and clothing

We were blessed in having a trained counsellor who attends church and who ran a really helpful training session on ‘What to say/not say to refugees’.

As we got to know people, we became more aware of their needs, so now we offer weekly English classes, run by an ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) teacher, who came into our café one day offering her time. A number of church members and their friends support her as part of the ESOL team. In partnership with a company called Community Welcome we also help with clothing, sorting donations and putting on clothes events for refugees.

Our church members have been overwhelmingly generous in their gifts. We feel so blessed as a church to have people from so many different countries joining us (from Syria, Eritrea, Somalia, Yemen, Ethiopia, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Turkey, Kurdistan, Hong Kong, Ukraine, Qatar and Algeria).

In recent months we have welcomed people newly arrived from Hong Kong and Ukraine both to World Kitchen and to the English lessons. And recently we welcomed Iranian and Syrian Christians to our worship, and we have now linked with Gideons International, who are providing Arabic–English bilingual copies of the New Testament.

Finally, we have come to know a photographic journalist who travelled in a boat with refugees from Turkey to Greece. Her photos, including the one on the front cover, tell a story that needs to be heard and we hope to get funding to hold an exhibition.

The Revd Jane Gaffney is the minister at Rugby Methodist Church in the Rugby & Daventry Circuit

How might a huge “host to guest” shift in power dynamics bless your church?