How cooking is helping survivors of modern slavery

The HR Administrator at City Hearts charity is helping survivors of modern slavery increase their confidence by teaching cooking as a life skill. City Hearts supports hundreds of men, women and children who have been rescued from modern slavery.

Kathijee, a 47 year-old mum of two, who is originally from South Africa, lives in Sheffield with her husband and their twins.

Growing up in Durban, with a mum and sisters who loved cooking inspired her to develop her culinary skills at a young age. Now she shares these with women who have been rescued from exploitation.

Kathijee also saw at first hand the hardships women could face. “I saw a lot of physical and sexual violence growing up. My desire to help women was sparked at a young age, but I didn’t know exactly how I could help until later in my life.”

After finishing school, Kathijee headed for the bright lights of Johannesburg and worked as a hostess on Greyhound buses travelling to Cape Town, Zimbabwe and all over South Africa. 

“Then my husband and I decided to travel around the UK. We loved it here and chose to stay in London… that was 23 years ago now. I was working in insurance when my husband’s job moved to Sheffield. We fell in love with the city and decided to stay. I was working as a planner for InBev Brewery when we joined Hope City Church about 11 years ago. I heard about the City Hearts anti-trafficking charity at one of their women’s conferences and later applied for a role on their operations team. I take care of every element of the recruitment process from job applications to interview set-up and DBS checks, then taking new starters through their inductions and training.”

Soon after joining the team and seeing the difference City Hearts is making to trafficked women’s lives, Kathijee decided to volunteer using her culinary skills.

“I couldn’t see myself being a counsellor, but I wanted to give something to help others and what I can offer is my cooking, so I try to use that to make a difference. I thought of cooking because it brings an element of fun and takes their minds off their trauma for a few hours.

“I notice when I go in every second Friday, the atmosphere quickly changes. Often when I meet the women who are new clients to our service, they are understandably very hesitant. They look up as I come in, then carry on with what they are doing. I go into the kitchen and once the sounds and smells come out, someone always says, ‘Do you need help? What can we do?’ Next minute they are laying the table and putting out the tealights. 

“Some of these women are malnourished when they join us, so I always provide a starter, main and dessert. It’s a proper dinner party once a fortnight. I chose Friday because people love going out to celebrate the weekend on Fridays. They miss their friends and their old lives. I see how I can help bring a bit of that excitement back. By the time we get to dessert, they are laughing and talking to each other.

“Last Friday when I walked into the safe house, one woman had a blanket over her head, another said she wasn’t going to cook, but soon after I started, she came into the kitchen to help and asked to borrow my apron. Later, as we prepared the food side by side, she said cooking reminded her of happy times with her mum who she hadn’t seen for about five years.

“People often ask us why the survivors can’t just go back to their home countries. Sadly, it’s not that easy as there is a risk they could potentially be re-trafficked – even by their own families. Some could be killed.”

Before she began the cooking classes, Kathijee provided the women with a list of different meals so they could choose which ones they’d like to make. The women are all from different cultures, so Kathijee gave a variety of options. “One young woman asked me to make her favourite pie and pea supper recently. They are not picky about what they eat,” she adds. 

Ingredients can be brought in with the online shop the City Hearts staff do for the survivors or she may do her own for more unusual ingredients, for which her costs are covered. Government funding initially covers these survivors to be in the safe house for six weeks, so they get three of her meals before they move into other provision, including their own homes.

Kathijee teaches a range of easy-to-make meals that can be recreated by the clients. She talks the women through each step and makes it alongside them, then everyone sits down to eat and enjoy together.

“It is wonderful to be able to combine my love of cooking with my passion for helping others. I have always seen food as a way of bringing people together. I see all the women from different backgrounds come together to cook. It is so rewarding to see the joy these classes bring to the women, and to know that they are learning valuable life skills to increase independence, that they may not have had the freedom to develop during their time in exploitation,” Kathijee adds. “My granny was one of those who didn’t grow up with much but would always share whatever she had. My mum learnt these skills from my gran – now I’m teaching my 12-year-old twins to cook. They know in our family, food is how we show love.”

Words by Catherine Scott from the Yorkshire Post