As Brexit tensions simmer, new exhibition celebrates migration


In a large warehouse in London, Afghan refugee Habib proudly watched cooking students stir pots of vegetable soup and fry lamb kebabs, preparing recipes passed down from his mother.

“This reminds me of when I was with my family. We eat this soup when we have something to celebrate,” he said at the pop-up kitchen at the Migration Museum where he is teaching a cooking class.

Surrounded by remnants of Britain’s migration history, including letters, clothing and photos of migrants, Habib is one of a handful of refugees running workshops and talks as part of the Room To Breathe exhibition.

“I feel very proud. It makes me feel like I have something to share with people,” said Habib, who arrived in Britain in 2016 after fleeing Afghanistan for political reasons and did not reveal his full name.

Four years ago, Habib would have cooked these dishes in the ‘Jungle’, a camp in northern France where he lived for four months with nearly 10,000 migrants, all hoping to reach Britain by stowing away on trucks, cars or trains.

Before it was demolished in 2016, the shantytown had become a symbol of Europe’s difficulty in dealing with the migrant crisis which saw millions of people arrive in Europe fleeing poverty and conflicts in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.


As Britain prepares to leave the European Union after a 2016 vote that has left the country deeply divided, opportunities to meet migrants and celebrate migration are increasingly necessary, said Aditi Anand, one of the exhibition’s curators.

“From the public debates on migration there’s quite a lot of misinformation out there,” said Anand in an interview.

“This exhibition is about the daily lives of the people who come here and it’s an opportunity for people to get to know more of those stories.”

Concerns about migration were among the main reasons used by the “Vote Leave” campaign to increase support for Brexit and it has remained a hot issue.

In 2017, police recorded 94,098 hate crime offences, up 17 percent on the previous year, according to the interior ministry. Mostly were race-related.

“I do feel like a lot of Britain is closing itself off from immigration,” said Londoner Amina Jahan Ali, who has joined the cooking class to learn about Afghan cuisine.

“Coming here, it’s about people learning more about someone who’s been a refugee … and sharing their culture, sharing food, connecting people together,” she said.


Last year, there were almost 122,000 refugees and over 40,000 asylum seekers in Britain, data from the United Nations refugee agency showed.

Due to language and cultural barriers, lack of local work experience, and, in some cases, discrimination, refugee charities say unemployment and social isolation are high among refugees in Britain.

Until they have refugee status, asylum seekers in Britain are not allowed to work and rely on a weekly allowance of about 38 pounds ($53).

The British Red Cross said it distributed food and clothing to about 15,000 destitute refugees and asylum seekers in 2017.

“We’re supporting them at their most vulnerable,” said Jess Thompson, founder of Migrateful, which trains asylum seekers, refugees and socially isolated migrants with industry standard skills so they can teach cooking classes or find a job.

“So any migrant who is suffering from obstacles to integration, we want to help to break down those obstacles. The ideal thing is for them to go on to full-time employment,” said Thompson, who helps migrants like Habib run cooking classes.

As he settles into his new life in Britain, Habib said he hoped to share his love of Afghan food with people in need.

“My idea is that one day I would like to have a little kitchen mostly to cook the best dishes which I like,” he said.

“The idea is to donate it to homeless people or people who can’t have proper food.”

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation)

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