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A taste of inclusion: Refugee women build a better future through cooking

Charity, Endurance and Anastasia are students at the Refugee Women Academy, a pioneering programme established by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and Piraeus Bank, and implemented by “Odyssea”. The initiative aims at developing new skills for refugee and asylum-seeking women through vocational training as kitchen assistants and hotel employees. These sectors offer promising employment opportunities in the thriving tourism industry.

Charity is from Uganda and fled to Greece in 2016, seeking safety as a refugee. She had studied Public Administration in her country and worked in an airport shop as a manager, but her studies and work experience didn’t help her much during job searching in Greece. Undeterred and determined to achieve self-reliance, Charity seized every job opportunity that came her way, working as a housekeeper, masseuse and restaurant cleaner. She had to raise her son.

It is even harder to find a job when you are a mother and you have limited free time. But you need to keep going and think that you will fulfill what you have set as a goal in your life”, Charity reflects.

Despite the difficulties she faced to find a job, Charity remained strong and optimistic and didn’t give up. She decided to search for better career prospects and as soon as she heard about the cooking course offered by the Refugee Women Academy, she enrolled.

The cooking course, led by professor and chef Stelios Mastorakos delves into the techniques, secrets and philosophy of the professional kitchen. Mastorakos explains to his students that cooking is a global profession.

Chefs are looking for very good assistants who have the ‘kitchen mentality’, meaning that they are able to adapt very quickly to a new team, work together and speak the language of cooking. Cooking as an art has its own language, just as music has notes. Those who know the cooking language can work in any kitchen”, Mastorakos explains.

In addition, the teacher underscores the crucial role of the kitchen assistant. “The kitchen assistant is the hands of the chef and the mechanism that makes a kitchen work”. The students nod in agreement, happy for the professional prospects that lie ahead.

Anastasia, a law graduate from Cameroon, decided to attend the programme to pursue these professional opportunities. “When you are in this part of the world, you need to be open-minded and continuously learn to remain employable and fit in the labour market”, she explains with a calm, yet dynamic tone in her voice.

Overall, what is most important for Anastasia is the knowledge she has gained from the lessons. “Knowledge is power. When you have it, no one can take it away from you. It can only help you succeed”, she says.

The Refugee Women Academy is implemented in the framework of Piraeus Bank’s Corporate Responsibility programme “EQUALL- For a Society of Equal People”. Its mission is to provide specialized training to refugee women, equipping them with essential knowledge and practical skills that will enhance their prospects for employability and social integration.

The courses serve primarily as a way of integration, Ioanna Panagaki, Odyssea’s programme coordinator, explains.

This programme is a form of social empowerment. Women not only acquire skills and knowledge, but are also empowered, because they gain self-confidence. We have here women from vulnerable social groups, who may have initially hesitated to participate or complete the course. Now, I see they enter a process of activation and pursue a job they think they deserve”, Panagaki says.

Another student, Endurance from Nigeria, lacked this self-confidence, despite her prior experience in a restaurant kitchen. However, through her participation in the Refugee Women Academy, she gained the courage to continue, and hope.

“It was difficult for us, as foreigners, to find a job. Now, with the support of this programme, I know I have the right to claim a better job”, Endurance says.

Childcare services are provided by Piraeus Bank throughout the programme’s duration to facilitate the attendance of refugee mothers. After completing the course, participants can also receive employability services, including support in writing their CVs and connecting with job opportunities. Since its inception in September 2023, the Refugee Women Academy has trained 75 women in vocational skills. The programme’s success is evident with nearly half of the participants from the first training course that ended in December 2023 having immediately secured employment in the tourism and food industries.

Upon cooking the dish, Charity and her fellow students are evaluated by their teacher. He congratulates them on the technical excellence they displayed, which was the primary goal of the challenge.

Excited that she will get the certification, Charity is looking forward to finding a job in a field that she loves.

I really enjoy being in the kitchen, cooking different dishes and presenting them to others. I feel a sense of fulfillment in creating something unique around food”, she describes.

Charity remembers how hard it was for her to believe in herself and feels the need to send a message to other women: not to be afraid to try new experiences.

I never believed that I could excel in these lessons. I didn’t think I had the skills or knowledge. I always thought it was meant for others. The course gave me a lot of confidence and now I can go to a restaurant and apply as a kitchen assistant. I even dream of owning my own restaurant one day”, Charity says and a radiant smile spreads across her face.

According to a recent report by the International Rescue Committee, refugee women could generate up to $1.4 Trillion to annual global GDP — if employment and earnings gender gaps were closed in each of the top 30 refugee-hosting countries.

*The United Nation’s message for this year’s International Women’s Day, 8 March 2024, is “Invest in women: Accelerate progress”. In a world facing multiple crises, achieving gender equality is more vital than ever. By investing in women, we can speed the transition towards a healthier, safer, and more equal world for all.

This article was made by Maria Kouzinopoulou  |  The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Greece in the context of the programme Refugee Women Academy that Odyssea runs.

Photo credits: UNHCR/Socrates Baltagiannis

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