Food

Inside the New Zealand kitchen empowering women refugees

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Cooks

Rebecca Stewart is the general manager and co-founder of Pomegranate Kitchen. She's pictured (far right) with other cooks working in the kitchen.

Credit:

Courtesy of Rebecca Stewart/Pomegranate Kitchen

Government discussion surrounding refugees oftentimes revolves around costs and quotas; the human element can get lost in the conversation. In order to add a personal touch to refugees' experiences in a new land — as well as to help them gain workplace skills — a social enterprise in New Zealand is making sure they’re known not by the label "refugee," but instead for the talents and know-how they bring to their new home.

Pomegranate Kitchen is an organization in Wellington, New Zealand’s capital city, that employs women refugees. They provide catering services — from light snacks and office lunches to sit-down dinners and large celebrations. The organization was selected last year as a top five New Zealand venture by SheEO, a global initiative created to radically transform how to finance, support and celebrate female entrepreneurs.

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“We were trying to find something that encapsulated the food [we were cooking] and the work we were doing. So, in the end, we settled on a simple, fresh and healthy fruit — pomegranate,” said 33-year-old Rebecca Stewart, the co-founder and general manager of Pomegranate Kitchen, about the genesis of the organization's name. She and her stepmom, Ange Wither, started Pomegranate Kitchen in October 2016 to provide employment opportunities for refugees.

“When I worked for the New Zealand Red Cross, I saw a lot of people who wanted to work but couldn’t get their foot in the door because of language barriers or lack of local experience,” said Stewart. Pomegranate Kitchen provides a way for women refugees to get past these challenges and earn an income using the skills they already have.

New Zealand has had its share of issues when it comes to taking in refugees. The country established a yearly quota of 750 refugees in 1987, but calls to double that quota emerged in recent years. In 2015, the government announced that the country would be taking in another 600 Syrian refugees on top of the annual quota. Starting this year, the refugee quota is set to double annually — from the previous 750 to 1,500 — under the new Labour-led government.

“We should be thinking about what people from a refugee background can bring rather than what they cost us,” Stewart said. “That’s a really important thing about what we do — trying to see the talent in people, see what individual skills they bring and what other skills can be developed. Not putting people in a box of just being cooks or refugees.”

Related: In northern Uganda, these women move past insurgency by baking cakes

The catering social enterprise currently has seven cooks from Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Iraq, Palestine and Syria. They’re trained to work in a commercial kitchen, an experience that equips them with skills in recipe creation, health and safety, and stock management. “They’re all really great cooks, so we didn’t need to do a lot of cooking training. The training we provide is more around food safety in a commercial setting and working to precise numbers on a large scale. We have a focus on capacity building, but we’re trying to maintain consistency,” said Stewart.

Pomegranate Kitchen celebrates the cuisines of these women, allowing them to cook dishes from across their homelands: baklava, falafel wraps, fattoush salad, kuku sabzi, tahini cookies and more. The recipes are all their own. “They’re making things they know how to make. And the way we work is quite different from a commercial kitchen. It’s less hierarchical and more collaborative,” Stewart said.

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Mixed food

The cooks at Pomegranate Kitchen make dishes from their respective homelands.   

Credit:

Rebecca Stewart/Pomegranate Kitchen 

One of the Pomegranate Kitchen cooks, a former refugee from Iraq who asked not to be named, has been with the social enterprise for a year. She says that working here has been rewarding in more than one way. “I’m happy because people are interested to learn about my culture and enjoy the food we offer,” she said. 

More importantly, these women are involved at all levels of Pomegranate Kitchen. Their previous head chef was instrumental in helping build the social enterprise, designing systems in the kitchen and menu items. Another head chef helped with administration tasks. They also have a board member from a refugee background. This allows the social enterprise to stay true to one of their values: “No decisions about us without us.”

A social enterprise like Pomegranate Kitchen is not without its challenges, however. During their early days, they had to work out of a kitchen they shared with another restaurant. They eventually moved to their own space last year. It has also been tough trying to operate in a saturated market of caterers in Wellington. “We’ve been really lucky that so many people in the community understand what we’re trying to do and support it. They buy our food, talk about it and share our stories,” said Stewart.

Yet another difficulty is navigating cultural differences. “Our cooks are the head cooks in their own home kitchens, so they have their own way of making things. There are some strong personalities there but everyone’s professional and getting along really well,” Stewart says. “It’s a wonderful experience working with people from different backgrounds and getting to know them. Our cooks all work so hard, and I find them a real joy to work with.”

But for Stewart, the biggest success of the business is seeing the changes in the women they’re working with. “We do an evaluation every year, and our cooks have reported that their skills have developed — math skills, interpersonal and managerial skills, time management and English-language skills,” she adds.

For now, the social enterprise’s main focus is to strengthen the business and employ more people for more hours. But in the future, Stewart says they’d love to do cooking classes, create shelf products and open in other areas.

For the women of Pomegranate Kitchen, food is more than a source of income. It’s a way to stay linked to their culture and enable others to experience new tastes. “Food is one of the ways people show love for each other, and sharing a meal together allows people to speak without having a common language,” said Stewart. “We like to think of it as community building. Our cooks are sharing their food and bridging the cultural divide.”

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