“I had nowhere to go, I lost my family in the war, and had to flee the country for my own safety. My life in Kukës in north Albania was awful, but I’m happy to have finally found a place that feels like home.”
I’m speaking with Badina, an Albanian refugee who lives in Cardiff. She is telling me about how local charity Oasis Cardiff supports refugees and asylum seekers in the Welsh capital. Their latest project is Refugee Food Stories, a food truck run in collaboration with ethical food venture Lia’s Kitchen and staffed by a team of volunteers and refugees, including Badina.
Last month, it parked up at Cardiff’s second international arts and music festival, Festival of Voice, helping the refugees integrate into the community and learn new employment skills.
“I’ve been working at Oasis Cardiff for two years and feel safest when I’m in the kitchen,” Badina says. “My job is to show the rest of the team how to cook, prepare dishes, and work with Lia [Moutselou, founder of Lia’s Kitchen] on portion control.”
The festival may be relatively new, but Oasis Cardiff has been around for over ten years. Founder and former nurse Reynette Roberts started volunteering at local sewing and cookery classes, but wanted to do more to help refugees living in Cardiff.
“The idea of the charity came from using food as a way to bring people closer together. Oasis Cardiff provides weekly cookery lessons, craft sessions, and language classes, but our kitchen is often the centre of our activities.” Roberts explains. “Now, we’re feeding about 100 visitors everyday at our centre in Splott and we’ve had people from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Mali, and Congo.”
I visit the Refugee Food Stories truck during the opening days of the Festival of Voice, which celebrates Wales’ connection with song and features performances from Gruff Rhys and Patti Smith. The trailer is parked at the central Festival Hub, with the day’s menu written on a blackboard. Each dish is influenced by the many nationalities of the refugees and volunteers working in the kitchen. Oasis Cardiff’s kitchen manager Soon Yeon brings Korean sushi rolls and cook Hudah provided the recipe for Sudanese meatballs. Badina’s contribution is caramelised onion pie, a traditional Albanian dish.
“A simple thing like making flaky pastry and cooking down the onions until soft makes me feel ‘normal’ again,” she says.
She continues: “To be able to cook and share food from my home country means a lot. I learned the pie recipe from my family, but to me, it’s not just a pie. It’s a symbol for how far I’ve come in life, to stay strong, and try to move on from the bad things that’ve happened to me in my life.”
Moutselou, self-taught chef and founder of Lia’s Kitchen, worked with the refugees and Oasis Cardiff volunteers to develop the food truck’s menu.
“I spent a lot of time working closely with the refugees, recording the recipes, and tweaking as we go along,” she tells me. “We’re using food as a bridge rather than a divider. It's a story of Cardiff and a story of the world that reflects our community and society.”
The Refugee Food Stories truck isn’t the first time Oasis Cardiff has worked on a big collaborative project. The charity helped put on art exhibitions and food events during Refugee Week, a nationwide celebration of refugees’ contribution in the UK. Roberts and Moutselou hope that their work at the Festival of Voice will bridge similar gaps between the refugees they work with and the Cardiff community. As well as selling food, they run language classes, allowing the refugees to meet new people and share words of their native tongue.
“Try to imagine yourself in a refugee or asylum seeker’s shoes. You’re not allowed to work, not knowing whether if you can stay in this country,” Moutselou says. “You’re letting other people decide your future and it’s a really difficult situation to be in.”
And it’s not just the refugees involved in Oasis Cardiff who benefit from cooking and serving customers at the food truck.
“Whether you’re a volunteer, or full-time staff at Oasis Cardiff, you get so much back. I’ve met so many people from the past ten years since I’ve set up this charity,” Roberts smiles. “We help people assimilate into the British culture, they learn new skills, get jobs and gain citizenship. I’ve been to about four citizenship ceremonies and it always fills me joy.”