Author- Tim Lewis
They’ve served 2.3m meals to refugees in France and the UK’s homeless. The winners of this year’s award, chosen by our panel of judges, explain why they had to do what they do
t 5.30pm, two unmarked white vans swing in to the car park of Puythouck, a nature reserve on the outskirts of Dunkirk, northern France. A couple of dozen men are waiting for them, but within a minute or two, many more emerge, like spirits, from the dense trees that surround the lake. Soon there are maybe 200. They are, I’ll find out, mainly Kurds and remarkably, considering the journeys they have taken and their present accommodation, most are in buoyant mood and well turned out. Only when you look closer do you notice that a disproportionate number are limping and a couple are on crutches; injuries picked up as they attempted to escape this place and find a better life.
The vans belong to Refugee Community Kitchen, a charity started in December 2015 by four Londoners, and this year’s winner of OFM’s Outstanding Achievement Award. When I visited in early September, Refugee Community Kitchen was providing a free dinner every evening in Puythouck and also at another site in Dunkirk, a leisure centre that housed around 1,000 people, including many women and children and at least 130 unaccompanied minors. In four years, the charity has served nearly 2.3 million mainly plant-based meals in France and the UK, through the help of 20,000 volunteers. On the menu tonight is a coconut and chickpea dal with potatoes and a tomato, cucumber and lettuce salad.
It’s good, nutritious food. Part of the charity’s ethos is that the people they serve should have agency over their meals, which should be “culturally appropriate”. To this end, a condiments table is a key part of their offering: there is hummus, made this afternoon, plus tubs of sumac, onions, za’atar, pickles and salt with which people can garnish their food. A large urn dispenses “sweet, sticky” tea.
As the volunteers set up serving tables, many refugees are happy to share their stories (or talk about Brexit, the ever-present threat of eviction and Manchester United). One, in excellent English, tells me that he wants to join his wife and three children who live near Solihull. His youngest daughter is seven months old, and he has not seen her since the spring. “Too long,” he says with a sad shake of his head. The day before he’d stowed away on a truck only to turn on his GPS and find it was heading deeper into the continent, not to the UK. “I don’t want to do it illegally,” he says. “But if I can’t do it legally, that’s what I have to do. I’ll keep trying, trying, trying.”
It might surprise you to learn that the population of refugees and migrants in northern France is still so large. It still surprises the founders of Refugee Community Kitchen: Steve Stavrinides, 48; Paula Gallardo, 51; Sam Jones, 45; and Janie Macintyre, 56. Well, it does, and it doesn’t. They began their work after seeing the photograph of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy drowned in the Mediterranean in September 2015, and reading newspaper reports of the Calais Jungle, a camp made on polluted wasteland that was soon home to around 4,000 people, including large populations from Eritrea, Afghanistan and Syria.