The Newcomer Kitchen Story
Imagine abandoning everything you know; your friends, your job, your home, your family, your culture. Imagine arriving in an alien country unable to communicate, unfamiliar with everything around you. How close would the promise of prosperity seem?
This was the reality for thousands of Syrian refugees who arrived in Canada in early 2016. While government ministries and settlement organizations scrambled to process hundreds of families, many were housed in hotels for weeks or even months at a time, where they had no kitchens to cook for themselves.
In a small gesture of hospitality, The Depanneur, a tiny culinary event venue in Toronto, invited a few newcomer women to use its kitchen to prepare and share a meal. The prospect of a field trip and a familiar, home-cooked meal offered a welcome break from the tedium of the hotels. This small act, initiated by a few volunteers using donated ingredients, quickly blossomed into a joyful and delicious weekly gathering. To sustain the initiative, the group began to prepare extra meals to sell to offset costs. The revenue paid for the ingredients and the kitchen space, and the surplus was divided up among the cooks.
Within a matter of months, the Newcomer Kitchen project had grown to include over 50 Syrian families and a large team of volunteers. Each week a group would prepare 50 meals to be sold online for pickup & delivery. Public and media enthusiasm was overwhelming; meals sold out in a matter of hours; local, national and international news outlets covered the story, and social media lit up with thousands of shares, likes, and tweets.
What became clear was that the potential of this model went far beyond one tiny storefront; it was something that could work with any newcomer population, in any kitchen willing to open its doors, in any city in the world.
In less than a year, Newcomer Kitchen has put more than $30,000 directly into the hands of over 50 refugee families while providing meaningful work and a unique opportunity for engagement and integration. It has only begun to unpack its potential impact on the prosperity and well-being of our newest citizens.
A Perfect Fit
Newcomer Kitchen represents an early intervention that can activate prior to typical employment prerequisites like a permanent address, literacy, professional experience, etc. It provides a path from the women’s existing skills to social and economic participation.
The once-weekly format is well suited to those not yet in a position to consider full or even part-time work. It is scaled to work within the constraints of those on government assistance; a modest revenue stream that fits within their legal earning potential, and paid directly to the women offering them a degree of financial independence.
In addition, Newcomer Kitchen has proven to be a valuable networking hub for connecting newcomers to opportunities while providing Canadian work experience; e.g. we were able to offer 24 Food Handler Certifications in Arabic, a valuable jumpstart to employability.
Newcomer Kitchen provides a marginalized community with a unique opportunity to engage in a meaningful, dignified way; a rare, equitable exchange that enriches both the givers and the receivers. It also provides a crucial space for cultural heritage threatened by global diaspora, offering a forum for inter-generational mentorship through sharing recipes and stories. It is as much a tool for intra-cultural integration and reconciliation as it is a bridge between Canadian and Syrian cultures. These experiences and friendships, the confidence and optimism they engender, have a profound ripple effect through the families and the community as a whole.
As a revenue-generating social enterprise, Newcomer Kitchen earns nearly 80% of its costs, all while paying a dignified wage. Its low costs, leveraging of latent capacity and novel revenue-generating mechanism means that it has potential to be easily and affordably adapted to work with other populations, kitchens and communities. Furthermore, many new opportunities have emerged, such as a Syrian Brunch Pop-Up, a food stand, catering gigs, team-building workshops, and more. With each location, additional possibilities would have another fertile place from which to grow.
A Path to Participation
The eyes of the world are on Canada; there is discussion of adopting our private sponsorship program on a global scale. Its innovation lies unlocking the capacity of the private citizen to engage in a solution to a global humanitarian crisis. Likewise, Newcomer Kitchen enables small and medium sized business to respond to the next hurdle newcomers face: the daunting barriers to social and economic participation.
In this way Newcomer Kitchen is participatory democracy in action: a model for both consumers and small businesses to directly engage in creating a dignified, equitable exchange with our newest and most vulnerable Canadians; a truly inclusive prosperity that is of benefit to us all.
—Len Senater, co-founder