Kadi Sesay, left, Trish McEwan and Saba Gidey of the ANU’s Food Co-op. Photo: Belinda Strahorn

THE smell of simmering garlic, onion and spice have escaped through the cracks in the door, luring passers-by into the cafe.

Bright tablecloths in red, blue, and yellow enhance the warm and easy-going atmosphere inside.

But it’s the women in the kitchen who are the soul of ANU’s Food Co-op.

Here, the refugee women, an Ethiopian, a South Sudanese, a Tamil and another woman from Sierra Leone, are employed to cook lunchtime meals at the co-op’s cafe, six-days a week.

The opportunity to showcase their passion for cooking has allowed the women to gain confidence, sharpen their English-speaking skills and settle into Australia’s working culture.

Kadi Sesay, 29, from Sierra Leone, works part-time at the food co-op and her peanut soup is a crowd pleaser.

For Kadi, the simple task of cooking helps her stay connected to her past while nurturing hope for her future.

“When I cook, I cook with passion, I put a lot of love into the food I prepare because cooking reminds me of home,” Kadi said.

“I cook a lot of traditional dishes with rice, then there’s my okra stew, cholo fries, cassava leaf dishes and peanut butter soup. 

“I also love making sesame seed snaps and traditional biscuits.”

Kadi’s journey to Australia and eventually Canberra was not an easy one.

When war broke out in Sierra Leone, her family fled to neighbouring Guinea Conakry, where they remained for 13 years as refugees.

Through UNICEF and the Australian government, Kadi and her family settled in Canberra in 2010.

“It’s beautiful here… I love it,” Kadi said.

“I was a baby when we fled Sierra Leone, so I grew up in the refugee camp and that was hard.

“Life in the camp wasn’t like living in an actual home, you can’t socialise with other people, you can’t move freely around, it was hard for me and my family.”

Saba Gidey, 40, didn’t know anyone when she arrived in Canberra from Ethiopia with her husband in 2009.

The couple met in Sudan, where her husband was a refugee.

“Life in Australia is good, this country is the number one place to be, if you live here you will be happy,” Saba said.

Saba’s been cooking at the co-op for five years and her traditional East African dishes are capable of drawing hordes.

“Today I’ve cooked a traditional pumpkin and kidney bean stew,” Saba said.

“Cooking makes me happy; I have special memories of cooking with my mother growing up.”

Trish McEwan, who employed the women, said the co-op’s mission is to empower refugees to tap into their culinary heritage while helping them find work.

Data released recently by the Australian Bureau of Statistics showed that, among recent migrants, women were less likely to find employment than men.

Without a confident command of English or formal education, navigating job applications and interviews can be near impossible.

“We are giving these women an opportunity to improve their cooking skills, to learn how to cook for large groups and engage in the community,” Trish said.

“As an example, Saba started cooking here on a Saturday, she now works with us permanently and she’s an absolute superstar, she has a huge following for her meals.

“It’s also about the community engaging with us and showcasing different types of cuisine for people to enjoy.”

Meals served through the week are vegan and gluten free, but on the weekend, the menu grows.

“Every Saturday between 12pm and 2pm we have a “Global-Feast” where one of the four refugee women will showcase traditional cuisine from their country,” Trish said.

“It’s amazing, they cook salads, stews, dumplings, soups, it's all about celebrating where they come from.

“During the week most of the customers we get are students, but on Saturday we get a lot of the general public coming in for lunch.

“It’s really lovely to see the community engaging with us and trying new cuisine.”

The Food Co-op is at 3 Kingsley Street, Acton, and serves lunch from noon-2pm on weekdays and Saturday. Most lunches are $8 for co-op members and $11 for non-members.

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