Open Door’s weekly lunch for refugees and asylum seekers has been running for twenty years at East Oxford Community Centre. We went along to see the process from delivery to lunch.
The Oxford Food Bank van arrives and chefs Tahseen and Hassan go to see what food is available. “The people here are very good at cooking with whatever they’ve got,” says long term volunteer Sue. After some discussion about what to cook, chefs and volunteers start preparing veg; meanwhile volunteer Jo pops out to buy ingredients that Oxford Food Bank don’t provide, such as meat.
“It’s a very simple thing we do,” says Sue. But as she talks, it becomes apparent that Open Door is not simple at all, and certainly not just about lunch. Coordinator Mark helps people with filling in forms, giving advice about housing, benefits and signposting people towards education, legal and other services. Other agencies drop in to give advice including Jackie from Oxford City Council who helps people deal with private landlords. People from different cultural backgrounds learn from each other, bringing different skills – Iranian and Spanish chefs might collaborate on a meal, while others share music or computer skills.
Throughout the morning people arrive for tea and coffee, cake, then towards lunchtime bread and olives. Day-old bread from north Oxford’s artisan bakeries is put back in the oven to become fresh and crispy again. At 1 o’clock the bell rings for lunch and people gather for a meal of delicious tomato and pepper soup, chicken stew, potatoes, broccoli, beans, rice and salad. “We call it Garden Soup,” says chef Tahseen. “It’s always vegetarian and made of whatever vegetables come on the day.”
“We really value the range of fruit and vegetables – especially fruit, which people often can’t afford to buy for themselves,” says Jo. “The food was quite spartan before,” adds Mark. “Oxford Food Bank lets us provide fuller, more interesting meals. And everyone remembers the occasional treats like quail’s eggs, brie and asparagus!”
After the meal volunteers wash up, often including refugees who are seeking work experience in order to get references for work. Others chat, play table tennis, pool and chess.
Volunteers are keen to emphasise that there is no waste. “There’s a refugee who donates takeaway boxes in bulk. This allows us to send people home with surplus for family and friends. If we have extra we give it to volunteers, homeless people and to other groups in the building – we try to make sure that nothing goes in the bin.”
Open Door Oxford is open every Thursday at East Oxford Community Centre.