Meet Jess Thompson: the social enterprise founder using food to support refugees

by Hannah Mendelsohn written for Melting Pot Mag

One of the Migrateful cookery classes run by refugees in London.
One of the Migrateful cookery classes run by refugees in London.

“Our society would not be as interesting without the influence of migrant cultures,” says Jess Thompson, 27. This is something she’s working to celebrate with the charity, Migrateful, that she set up in 2017. The organisation helps London-based refugees get on their feet through training them as chefs. They then teach classes on how to cook the cuisines of their home nations.

Take the story of Majeda. She no longer teaches with Migrateful as she’s gone on to set up her own business but when she first arrived in the UK from Syria she didn’t have the right to work. Jess says: “Teaching the cookery classes really helped her to meet people in this country and get work experience. Once she had the right to work we were able to pay her.” Now Majeda is an activist and runs her own supper clubs to help those left behind in Damascus. Thompson says: “Sometimes you just need your first job in the UK.”

Jess Thompson set up the charity Migrateful in 2017 and works with people like Parastoo, who migrated from Iran, to support them in the UK.
Jess Thompson set up the charity Migrateful in 2017 and works with people like Parastoo, who migrated from Iran, to support them in the UK.

THE HIDDEN SIDE OF THE REFUGEE CRISIS

The idea for a food-based integration project came to Jess after spending a couple of years working on the front line in refugee camps in Morocco and Dunkirk with multiple Spanish charities. After studying French and Spanish, in 2015 Jess went to work for the British Council teaching English. It was a decision that would set the course for her life. She was assigned to Ceuta, a Spanish enclave on the Moroccan coastline. Before she went she says she knew nothing about the area because “there isn’t any coverage in the British media about the refugee crisis there”. The enclave is surrounded by a fence, and Thompson says that “there’s like 100 migrants climbing over the fence every month or even every week and they’re mainly French-speaking west African migrants”.

In Ceuta, there isn’t a refugee camp in the same way as in Calais. Instead there is the Temporary Immigrant Residence known as CETI which is run by the Spanish government. Jess describes it as “a holding centre”. Although the site has a capacity of 500, it’s often filled with over 1000 refugees, all waiting for months to be allowed onto the mainland. If the migrants choose to formally apply for asylum the wait is even longer at one year. Most of the NGOs based in Ceuta are Spanish-speaking, so Jess was able to help by translating between the charity workers including therapists and the refugees and facilitating workshops.  

Eventually Jess was looking for a way to support those refugees arriving in the UK, so in 2016 Jess enrolled on a year-long course called The Year Here Fellowship: “The idea was to pilot different business ideas while working with the group you want to help on the front line.”

Founder Jess Thompson with Migrateful chefs Elahe and Parastoo - mother and daughter who migrated to London from Iran.
Founder Jess Thompson with Migrateful chefs Elahe and Parastoo – mother and daughter who migrated to London from Iran.

FOOD THAT BRINGS COMMUNITIES TOGETHER

As part of this, Jess set up a skill exchange project with a group of women refugees “to help them feel more empowered and meet people through thinking about what skills they could share in the community”. Jess was teaching English to the group as her skill offering and one week she suggested they bring in a recipe from their home. “They were really passionate telling me about their favourite dish,” Jess says. “That was the moment I thought this is a skill that they all have, most of them were unemployed because of language barriers and because their qualifications don’t count in the UK. It was a way to get them into work.”

What started as a pilot in her home, has now developed into a fully-fledged charity that has so far facilitated over 200 cookery classes and reached some 2000 participants. With 16 chefs from all corners of the globe, from Eritrea to the Philippines to Iran and Cuba, Jess wants Migrateful to provide a solution for the isolation refugees can often face upon arriving in the UK: “Migrateful helps them to feel really celebrated and welcomed in this country and helps them to meet people, practice their English and gain work experience so they can go on to get other jobs.”

The charity’s work caught the eye of Jamie Oliver who is supporting Migrateful by inviting each chef to have a cookery class with one of his cookery experts. They’ve just completed the first class with their Iranian chefs Elahe and Parastoo. Jess says: “It was exciting. The chef did a cookery class with Oliver’s team and they gave us feedback on our cookery class model and some really useful advice.”

It’s the weekly chef training classes that help build the community amongst the refugees that Migrateful work with. Jess explains that even those who have been with the charity from the beginning still attend these weekly meet-ups. At these sessions they practice teaching so they can go on to run the evening classes which are hosted in cafes or can be requested privately for businesses or groups of friends.

Migrateful runs regular workshops where refugees share their native cuisines with the guests.
Founder Jess Thompson with Migrateful chefs Elahe and Parastoo – mother and daughter who migrated to London from Iran.

FIGHTING BACK AT BREXIT

The charity’s work doesn’t just benefit the chefs. Jess also says it benefits society at large: “The Brexit referendum really showed that a lot of people living in the UK are not happy with how much migration has increased. We’re trying to challenge that in a really positive way.” Jess adds: “It’s quite a sneaky way – everyone loves food, it’s something that everyone can enjoy.”

Jess does note that often the people who book onto Migrateful’s classes are already sympathetic to the refugees’ cause which is why they are looking to expand out of the capital and to offer classes free of charge in areas where there’s a greater need for integration. In fact, it’s the classes arranged by companies for their employees where Jess sees the most impact: “You get a lot of people attending the classes who wouldn’t choose it for themselves. Then you’ll see a lot of employees changing their perceptions.”

Photo taken when Elahe and Parastoo went to teach an Iranian cookery class at Jamie Oliver’s headquarters at the beginning of March

You can also read this blog post on the Melting Pot website: A site exploring the stories of immigrant communities in the UK and the memories their food holds.