It’s a chilly morning in east London’s Victoria Park and despite strong wind, the Sunday market is busy with people passing from stall to stall, tasting cheeses and cured meats or warming their hands on cups of takeaway coffee.
At the north end of the park is a stall doing things a little differently. Wrapped up in a patterned scarf and thick jacket, trader Khaled Al Hussein, opens his arms to passersby.
“Would you like to try some bread?” he calls out. “It’s good, no? Try some more.”
Al Hussein is managing Breadwinners, a stall that sells around 30 different types of organic bread under the tagline “fresh bread, fresh start.”
Breadwinners, founded in 2016, is a grassroots charity that employs refugees to sell bread in markets around London. The idea is simple: bread as a food is unifying, and selling it can act as a stepping stone for refugees in the job market. By offering them their first chance at employment in the UK, it’s easier to find more permanent work later on.
“We see organic bread as a tool to support as many jobs as we can,” says Martin Campos, who runs the organisation. “Ultimately, bread is in every single country in the world, so everybody can relate. It's something that everybody likes and will eat, and is in common with all the cultures.”
Campos says there’s also something special about London markets that enables the project to work so well. “You need this type of atmosphere that’s supportive. The market is amazing because you can spend all day here, the traders are really nice and it's social.”
With quiet Arabic hip-hop playing through a small speaker at Breadwinners’ Victoria Park stall, Al Hussein busies himself during quiet moments, brushing bread crumbs off the table and tidying the displays of loaves.
“When I started here, I didn’t understand English, I didn’t understand anything about types of bread,” he says. “But now, everyday I am learning, slowly, and I am understanding more and more.”
Al Hussein is one of 12 people working at Breadwinners, spread over four of the city’s farmers markets, including Chatsworth Road and Primrose Hill alongside Victoria Park. He’s been here over a year now, starting as a volunteer before becoming employed as a “Breadwinner,” or market stall manager. Today, he’s working alongside three young asylum seekers who are part of the “Young Risers” programme.
Breadwinners pairs unaccompanied asylum seekers with mentors and volunteer at the markets on weekends—they can only volunteer because people seeking asylum don’t have the right to work in the UK.
Francesca Fogli, a mentor, tells me that volunteering here means the young asylum seekers are “not just waiting for the Home Office to say if they’ve been accepted or refused. They can start using that time to develop skills, integrate themselves in society.”
Though employment is seen as hugely important for integration, only half of refugees find work within 21 months of being in the UK—well below the average national employment rate of 80 percent.
Language skills are often cited as a problem, but there’s also the lack of references or connections, and grasping how the job market works. “If you don’t feel confident, you can’t demonstrate what you’re capable of,” says Fogli.
He adds: “Being in a market in London shows that their situation is a reality. It’s nice that people can come for the bread, appreciate the quality of it, and come to know they are young refugees.”
Al Hussein takes a seat behind the stall. “Do you need a cup of tea?” he asks one of the Young Risers, who asked not to be named.
“See, it’s good to work with the whole team,” Al Hussein says, smiling. “Team Breadwinners support everything—any problem I have, I ask them.”
“I miss my country. All my family and friends are in Syria, they would come to my house, speaking, joking, having fun. But Breadwinners helps, I’m settling here as I speak with people all the time."
Al Hussein came to the UK in 2017 through the government’s Vulnerable Person Relocation Scheme (VPRS), a pledge to bring over 20,000 of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees, like those with young children, or survivors of violence.
Al Hussein now lives in Hackney with his wife and three children, and in one month they’re expecting another son.
He’s from Hama, not far from the heavily besieged city of Homs. Hama itself witnessed widespread destruction throughout years of conflict—the city saw some of the largest anti-government demonstrations, and brutal crackdowns that followed.
Al Hussein decided to take his family away just a few months after war started. Like hundreds of thousands of other Syrians, they settled in Lebanon. He worked in casual jobs, as a plumber, gardener, and labourer, until they got the call that they’d been accepted on the VPRS and would be coming to the UK.
“I miss my country,” Al Hussein says. “All my family and friends are in Syria, they would come to my house, speaking, joking, having fun. But Breadwinners helps, I’m settling here as I speak with people all the time. I’m learning English, and I can understand how jobs work here.”
At times, life in the UK has been tough, but his kids are settling in school, he’s got a support network from his neighbours and the team at Breadwinners, and will soon be starting a new job as a gardener.
“I have now two families, one family in Syria, one in London.”
There’s something special about being at the bustling market each week, forming relationships with fellow traders and regulars, Al Hussein says. “People here are friendly. When I started here I was shy, but every week it gets better. Sometimes you don’t need language, you just need a smile.
“This smile,” he says, beaming, “all people like it.”