Focus Refugee Food Festival

When Bordeaux kitchens open up to the world

When restaurants open their kitchens to refugee cooks, the result is the Refugee Food Festival. In Bordeaux, the organizers are looking to register their work beyond this simple media event. They also accompany the integration of refugees, like Fatma Mulai. Originally from Western Sahara, the young woman arrived in Bordeaux in a van with her very young son. She is now an employee of a Bordeaux institution. The story of a particularly successful integration through cooking. 

“I arrived in Bordeaux on March 28, 2016,” the young woman hammers out in French mixed with Arabic and Spanish. She remembers this date as if it were yesterday, she who fled Western Sahara, stayed several years in Algeria, before arriving in Bordeaux after a long and painful journey. “I didn’t know anyone here, I didn’t speak French, my son was two years and four months old, he cried a lot, he was hungry. I went to the COS – Centre for Refugees and Asylum Seekers – but it was closed. A man offered me accommodation in the Sahrawi camp. We were only three women, it was dirty, I only spent one night there! Only one night! The next day, the COS was open and I was able to apply for asylum”. 

The asylum seeker’s nightmare

With the asylum application filed, Fatma has yet to find a place to sleep. Questionable experiences with unscrupulous people, hotels 20 kilometers from Bordeaux, return to the Sahrawi camp… Fatma has a hard time including to find food, “I begged for the first time in my life”. The CADA (reception centre for asylum seekers) finally find her a room in an apartment in Villenave d’Ornon. The other women come from Albania, Kosovo, Libya and Chad. She stays there for 10 months and her son goes to school. 

In February 2017, a studio in the centre of Bordeaux is found. She moves in, everything seems to be going well, when her request for asylum is refused: “I lived through it very badly, I cried a lot” … But it takes more than that for Fatma to get discouraged, she clings on, explains her situation “to justice” and finally gets a positive response a few months later. 

Now Fatma lives legally in France, she can look for work. Professional chef, she hopes to find a job in her line of work. When she sees the Refugee Food Festival poster, she thinks it might be a lead. Sandrine Clément-Rivoltella, one of the volunteers of the Bordeaux event, introduces her to the managers of Chez Alriq, a famous Bordeaux “guinguette”. The current is flowing and one evening in June 2018, as part of the Refugee Food Festival, Fatma treats 80 people to lamb couscous. 

Once the event is over, Sandrine continues to accompany Fatma in its endeavours. Alriq’s team would like to hire the young Sahrawi but there are no jobs available in the kitchen… except for dishwashing. “It’s a transitional phase, says Cathy, in charge of reception and programming, Fatma works magnificently well and is always in a good mood. It hasn’t been difficult to welcome her because the people who work at Alriq all have very different profiles. We do things together. We help each other out. It’s in kindness that we can work well.” An approach shared by Katy who also works at the guinguette “This is not the first time we’ve hired refugees. Here, it’s a special place, a place where everyone can find their place. This notion of benevolence and mutual respect is at the heart of the project created by Rose and Alriq in 1990”. If Sandrine would have preferred Fatma to find her place behind the stove from the outset, Fatma, she doesn’t complain: she has a work contract, a salary, benevolent colleagues: “I would like to stay here. I am not looking to become rich but to live. Real wealth is life!”. 

The Refugee Food Festival

Beyond the event

The Refugee Food Festival is an event that takes place in June in several European cities at the same time. In Bordeaux, after four successful editions (a total of 14 restaurants mobilized and 18 chefs seeking asylum welcomed), the organizers, all volunteers, are looking to register their work beyond the simple media event. While Sandrine Clément-Rivoltella, the kingpin of the project, brings together restaurants and refugee chefs for the duration of the festival, she is also committed beyond that by following and accompanying the refugee chefs over the long term. Fatma is one of those whom Sandrine has accompanied, as is Jawad, who came from Iraq and is now a cook in a clinic in Bordeaux. 

Practical information

Refugee Food festival

Guinguette Chez Alriq

© Sonia Moumen (exchange reporter) for Champs Libres, member of Kus Alliance France

This post is also available in: FrenchGermanPortuguese (Portugal)

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