Aromas that Nurture

Roda Madziva discusses helping connect refugee families and local communities.

A woman and girl in casual clothes collaborate together in a kitchen

The theme for Refugee Week 2022 is healing – defined as “recovering from a painful experience or situation”, with the community central to helping refugees to heal and start again. Here the assumption is that refugees suffer painful experiences in their countries of origin and sometimes en route and that their arrival in the host society marks the beginning of their healing process.

Yet, my research with refugee families paints a more complex picture. It shows how refugees get re-traumatised and re-wounded everyday as they navigate the British asylum system. I would like to reflect on a project which I led as part of the University of Nottingham’s Institute for Policy and Engagement civic engagement initiative, undertaken in partnership with Ignite futures and Nottingham and Notts Refugee Forum. Alongside playwright Andy Barrett, we worked with refugee families through workshops designed to create narratives based on their life journeys, memories and associations from food and aromas. This was a step towards reducing the barriers between the refugee families and their local university community as well as building on the university’s civic engagement vision.

Our life journeys: a refugee’s journey as one that never ends

The workshops incorporated creative walks, to open up conversations and share life journeys while connecting to the natural environment. In a stroll around a rainy Highfields Park, Aminata (not her real name) said the trees reminded her of village life back home:

The forest and the green trees are a symbol of life. The rains also are good because they enable people to plough their fields … and have food to eat. If it were in the village, I would go to the fields…Our field was quite far away… I would cross a thick forest… I was sometimes scared that someone would do me harm... But when the challenges that eventually forced me to flee came, the forest became something else… a friendly place…

Aminata said her time in the UK was a journey in itself:

A refugee’s journey is one that never ends… I have been in this country for eight years, but I am still an asylum seeker with no fixed abode… I have crossed many borders since I arrived here… but the journey still goes on.

Differential humanity: forced dispersal and withdrawal of the rights to sell labour power

Changes in asylum policies have disempowered people seeking asylum in the UK. The Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 introduced a dispersal system where asylum seekers are dispersed across the UK on a no-choice basis. The Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 subsequently withdrew asylum seekers’ rights to paid work. This has rendered Aminata powerless to exercise personal autonomy:

When I arrived I was first sent to Manchester where I was put in a hotel. When I had just moved to a house, I was transferred to Norfolk where I lived for seven and a half years. I made some friends and became part of the community, and my son was born… We waited, year after year, to know whether we would be allowed to stay. Without the right to work I was just leading an empty life… and then, just like that, one day the Home Office told us that we must move away from Norfolk, from our friends, school, community, and come to Nottingham to start all over again. It was hard to wave goodbye to the community I loved.

As I have noted elsewhere, for a parent, to be granted the right to continue to live and breathe but not the right to legally belong, to freely sell one’s labour, or to choose where one wants to live — looks very much like a condition of social death.


Food is the glue that binds people and families together

In my research with refugees, the women told me about the importance of making food for their families. In a context where they are treated as asylum seekers first and parents later (if ever), making food for their families seems the only thing that affirms their identities as mothers. The project hosted a cooking event, bringing together eight refugee families and providing the women with the opportunity to cook dishes, such as spicy chicken, lamb casserole, jollof rice and salmon, which were rich in meaning and memory. These handed-down recipes have become the treasures that define their identities in the UK.

As the mother who made spicy chicken said:

Food is the glue that binds people and families together. This spicy chicken is a special dish for events such as traditional marriage ceremonies… it is a symbol of love and affection.

A new and positive refugee experience?

Following cooking, we ate together. Sharing food allowed the women to meet, socialise and celebrate their cooking skills. As one mother put it: “this has been a new and positive experience of being a part of our local university community”, while the event generated a new understanding of the refugee experience.

As one of the project partners commended:

The university can feel truly proud of using its research interests, public engagement resources and commitment to the civic engagement aspects of citizen social science to work with partners in the city for both research and public benefit purposes. A really valuable and positive example of what being a civic university means in a diverse city like Nottingham.



The Home Office should consider:

  • granting asylum seekers, especially parents, unrestricted rights to work to enable them to support their own children, just like any other parent
  • not uprooting asylum seekers from communities where they are settled to help them truly heal and be able to start again

Communities need to support refugees and acknowledge the value they add through the skills they bring, contributing to culture and the vibrancy of our society.

Roda Madziva is an Associate Professor in Sociology, Faculty of Social Sciences.