It's a chilly Monday morning and I'm in Cheetham Hill in north Manchester, an area home to a large part of the city's migrant population. In the local community centre I find Heart and Parcel, a social enterprise using the humble dumpling to bring migrant women together and help teach English speaking skills.
Among the 15 women in the group is Naima, a quiet lady with a broad smile. We chat as she rolls the dough ready to be made into dumplings. I ask where she is from.
"Libya," Naima replies.
I can see she wants to say more but with limited spoken English, it's difficult to find the words. Instead, she mimics shooting a gun with her hands. There are tears in her eyes.
Like many migrant women, Naima wants to learn English. Without it, her employment and social opportunities in the UK are extremely limited. Aside from the Heart and Parcel classes, the government-run English Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) course is her only real option.
So, how do dumplings help?
"We realised there was a huge gap in ESOL classes," Heart and Parcel co-founder Clare Courtney tells me. "Food is the integral part to what we do. It's the neutral thing to bind everything together. Every country has a form of a wrapped thing, whether it's empanadas, pierogi, baklava—it's in every single culture."
Earlier this year, David Cameron was accused of stigmatising migrant women by suggesting that they should learn English to resist being lured into extremism. He announced £20 million of funding to help those who couldn't speak English, threatening migrants who fail a language test after two and a half years with deportation. This seemingly generous funding was also preceded by devastating cuts of £45 million to similar services last year.
Together with fellow founder Karolina Koscien, Courtney saw a dumpling-shaped hole in the support provided for vulnerable and isolated women entering the UK.
"If they [migrants sitting the English test] don't say the numbers from one to ten and spell them correctly, then they've failed their learning outcome," explains Courtney . "At Heart and Parcel's classes, we're throwing all that out the window, taking the pressure away."
In today's class, I watch as Koscien ensures the last students are settled, while Courtney introduces the vocabulary. On the board, she writes up the ingredients that will be used for the dumplings.
"I've a chemical engineer, an art teacher—I've had people who are fully qualified in their countries in my class, and they come over here and just hit this wall and have to start all over again," Courtney tells me.
While the class is overseen by Courtney and Koscien, this particular session is being run by two students, both of whom were so inspired by their last visit to Heart and Parcel that they asked if they could help out.
The pair has decided to teach us how to make Iraqi dumplings—technically breads, but Courtney tells me that the classes can cover any kind of wrapped food. We start with a standard mix of flour, milk, egg, yeast, salt, and sugar to make a sweet and doughy base.
Prepped by the two women beforehand, the mix has already been left to rise, and is rolled out to be cut into circles for filling and folding.
Next, a choice of two fillings is passed around: a heady mix of lamb, onion, tomato, curry powder, cumin, parsley, and green pepper, or cream cheese and mint. Some of the women, including Naima, are taking notes on the ingredients in English. Others aren't.
"I hate cooking," says a woman from Sudan to my left. "I won't be cooking this at home."
I'm puzzled. "So, why do you come to classes?"
"Oh, I like the classes," she replies. "I come to talk with friends."
And such is the freedom of the class. The cooking itself is slightly chaotic, but that's the beauty of it. As much as Courtney and Koscien are facilitating, it's directed by the students.
The breads are laid on trays ready for an egg wash glaze, before being baked for 15 minutes. We eat them with a homemade coleslaw and salad. Sitting around the table, it's clear that Heart and Parcel lessons don't end at a finsihed dumpling. The women stay and chat long after the last crumbs have been eaten.
It's also during these conversations that Courtney and Koscien can find out more about individual students' circumstances and provide specialist support.
"On our first session, there was a woman—she was 19. She'd come through Italy from Pakistan," recalls Courtney. "She was a guardian of a 14-year-old and she was struggling to find a job. We were able to put her in contact with someone to help her find a job. Another woman's uncle and her mother had died, which meant she had to look after all the kids. She just wasn't coping. We were able to get her in touch with a support worker at a bereavement charity."
According to Courtney, these issues would otherwise just go unnoticed.
"Issues like that, they just come out as they're making dumplings," she explains. "In a regular English class, they just don't have time."
In order to raise money to keep the classes going, Courtney, and Koscien run supper clubs introducing diners to dumplings from across the world, inspired by the women the money supports. In the future, the pair hope to sell the multicultural dumplings at their local market. This way, they won't have to rely on funding, creating a sustainable model for Heart and Parcel.
"Our bigger plan is to inspire women to sell their own—to start their own businesses, to sell their own food." Courtney says "That's much further down the line but in the long term, we can strengthen that and make sure they can go on and develop their own business."
Perhaps when I see Naima again, she'll be running her own business. Maybe she can tell me her whole story over the next batch of dumplings.