Article by Joanna Sarah-Freedman
On a Bank Holiday Monday, most of us were out socialising, or nursing a hangover – but not Cissy Rae Dalladay and Kirstie Eden.
Alongside a team of incredible helpers, the pair had been up since 9am, chopping vegetables and decorating their local church hall for a charity banquet.
Having met whilst volunteering with Care4Calais, a charity that supports refugees, private chef Cissy, 29, and media partnerships manager, Kirstie, 32, now run social enterprise, GMAs Community Kitchen, an initiative they set up last Autumn, with the ethos ‘you eat, we eat, everyone eats’.
The idea is as simple as that. They sell delicious food to raise money, in turn feeding refugees and asylum seekers who live in temporary housing in South London.
After several stints selling roti (inspired by the recipe of Kirstie’s Guyanese grandmother Dalee Sharma, 83) and a batch of kind donations on GoFundMe, enough money was finally raised to put on a truly authentic spread, with a menu curated (and partially cooked) by the local refugees and asylum seekers themselves.
And given that around 70% of those in their local temporary housing hotel are muslim, when better than Eid to throw their first big event?
“We just wanted to give them a taste of home,” Kirstie says. “To do something to welcome all of the refugees that we work with and create a moment for them to come together as a community with us to celebrate, and enjoy a feast.
“I live with my grandma in Brixton, where she’s been ever since she came in Windrush from Guyana, and the memories I have in this house of massive family meals – like literally multiple rolling shifts of people coming to the table because we couldn’t fit everyone on the table – are really beautiful for me.
“It’s not just the comfort of eating but that comfort of community and togetherness, and the joy that comes from it.
“It’s part and parcel of Caribbean culture – welcoming everyone in and wanting everyone to be a part of it. That’s [what inspired] GMAs Community Kitchen, and it’s obviously in the spirit of Eid, too.”
Eid is a festival typically celebrated with family and friends, but given that they work with people in temporary accommodation, many of Kirstie and Cissy’s guests were facing the prospect of spending the day alone, or at least without all of their loved ones, and the traditions they were accustomed to.
“A lot of the refugees [and asylum seekers]… they’re really in limbo,” Cissy explains. “It can take almost two years for some of them to be granted asylum or not, and then there’s that constant state of not knowing what’s happening and being away from family.
“There’s a lot of issues with depression and I just think food is one of those things that can make a difference in an instant.”
“It can transport you somewhere else and it can give you a sense of shared experience,” Kirstie adds. “In that way, it’s a gift.
“We wanted to utilise the idea of togetherness and kindness over Eid and create something special that’s just for them; putting these people at the epicentre and allowing them the opportunity to just enjoy themselves in a safe space”.
Stepping into the Ascension Church, in Clapham, it was clear they had done just that. The aroma of saffron rice, fresh herbs and rich, hearty chicken stew hit you as soon as you walked through the doors, but not before the overwhelming feeling of warmth and positivity.
With an art therapy installation set up in one corner and a guitarist on hand, there’s no denying the joyous and celebratory atmosphere that Kirstie, Cissy and the church had managed to create.
Language barriers aside, asylum seekers, refugees and volunteers were all sitting as one; bonding over the meal in front of them.
Neither Cissy or Kirstie are muslim themselves, but they’re all too aware how important Eid is to many of the refugees and asylum seekers they’re helping – especially given they’re so far from home.
“At home, I had a giant family. My grandparents and my uncles all lived together and even my cousins and brothers, they all went abroad to study, but for Eid they would come back home,” explains Anie, 29, who arrived in the UK from Pakistan three years ago.
“So, when I first came here, I was literally crying at Eid. [I thought,] ‘What is this? Where am I?’
“When I saw this event I was so surprised. This is the first time I’ve been able to go to a big gathering on Eid, and the meal… the flavours are literally matching our food from home. It’s amazing”.
Meanwhile, Eman, 40 (who came here from Sudan and has been in the hotel for five months) says the spirit of generosity in the room reminds her of her roots.
“In Sudan, during Ramadan, all of the men go out on the street with their food and everyone who doesn’t reach their home in time [for the end of the fast]… they invite them to come and join,” she says. “Even if people don’t go out, they open their doors and you can just enter and take food at any time.
“Here, I don’t have relatives, I’m just by myself. It’s hard for me, but today – everyone from the hotel, we came as a group. As a family. Even though it’s different and I miss home, there’s a real sense of Eid”.
The real and personal impact that GMAs Community Kitchen is having cannot be downplayed, and they’re only just getting started.
Before their Eid event, Cissy and Kirstie fundraised to provide hearty, warming dinner deliveries to these same refugees and asylum seekers, and also to help initiatives such as Cook For Ukraine and Care4Calais.
The idea of cooking Caribbean food to help raise this money started on a whim.
“One night [my grandma and I] were making loads of food in the house and I just said ‘let’s wrap some of these up and we’ll just do a little roti run [to raise some money]’,” Kirstie says.
“Everyone loved it, and that was just before Cissy and I got together. Cissy has totally finessed my grandma’s recipes and just escalated them to new levels.
“We coined the word ‘rotito’, which is a roti burrito, and it all just went from there, really.”
“I had a little lesson with Kirstie’s grandma and she taught me to make her chicken curry,” Cissy recalls. “It’s very specialist and not like any Caribbean food I’d tasted before.
“I wanted to keep those Guyanese tastes.”
As they started doing more regular food events and roti runs, the ‘rotito’ garnered plenty of attention, with London’s Bodega Rita’s owner Missy Flynn lending her kitchen and Foundation FM’s food and drink presenters, Mam Sham, praising their efforts. Pivotally, they also raised money to help feed those who needed it most.
“We’re essentially using food as a conduit to give something back,” Kirstie says. “The refugees we work with in the hotel are given eight pounds a week to live off and the hotel is responsible for feeding them and keeping them alive.
“There really is a lack of pastoral care that trickles into the food. Often they’re given mouldy bread, a slice of tomato and nothing nutritious or warming.
“There’s loads of children there. There’s loads of pregnant women and it’s just not good enough”.
explains Cissy. “That way it comes full circle”.
What’s next for GMAs? “It’s all about finding a way to create an even more efficient way of doing what we do and trying new exciting ways to connect our community,” says Kirstie. “Which could range from GMA’s first supper club to engaging local businesses or restaurants, creating something that can trickle down to the people who are most in need, both in terms of refugees, and also homeless and vulnerable people”.
It’s evident Kirstie’s grandma’s hospitality underpins everything they do. And if their Eid event proves one thing, it’s that they’re onto a winner.