Behind the scenes of the Unity International Café in Boscombe
PUBLISHED: 13:00 11 February 2019
Hattie Miles 07907 645897
A multicultural lunch in Boscombe is helping people to share their stories and family recipes with the wider communities
Anyone who tells you that multi-cultural Britain isn’t working hasn’t been to Boscombe recently. I’m in a bustling kitchen at the back of the Friends Meeting House in Wharncliffe Road and the sight that greets me is one of pure joy. People from widely differing ethnic and religious backgrounds are happily bonding over food and conversation and the air is filled with a wonderful aroma of both familiar and unfamiliar spices.
A Sudanese woman is deep in conversation with an old friend, an Indian brought up in Kenya. A huge pot of ratatouille “with an Algerian slant” is bubbling on the stove. Nearby a Syrian man is cheerfully chopping vegetables. He is part of a team of volunteers from across Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East and beyond, preparing the monthly lunch at Bournemouth’s Unity International Cafe.
The project is a spin-off from the charity Unity in Vision (UinV) that aims to help individuals from migrant communities to work together and integrate successfully in the neighbourhoods they have moved to.
The voluntary organisation was established in Dorset 12 years ago after a discussion in a car park between retired Bournemouth restaurateur Sayma Ahmed and two friends. Sayma is now an honorary chairman of UinV, as it is known, and one of those friends, Afsaneh Pracha, is the vice chair.
“At that point we weren’t thinking of a café,” says Sayma, recalling that initial conversation. “But I did think we could have a multi-cultural centre where people could come together and make friends, share their stories and discuss their different cultures, food and clothes.”
The Bournemouth Unity International Cafe was established in September 2017 and operates as a partnership with the charity Training and Learning and the Friendly Food Club.
“We had organised some training sessions for ethnic groups,” says Greg Singleton is the training and learning secretary. “The original idea was to teach them about cooking English food, but they started bringing their own ideas in and swapping recipes. It was very successful and people learnt a great deal. So we decided to establish a regular lunch where people could get together and share food.” And so the Unity International Cafe was born. And as predicted, it has been an unqualified success.
It meets every second Wednesday of the month with a differently themed meal, cooked by families in the region of origin. The meals, which cost £6-a-head, can be booked and enjoyed by anyone.
Recent ‘home-cooked’ delights have featured Syrian, Afro-Caribbean, English and Oriental food. Mexican and Nile Valley recipes are on the menu for the near future. It has been such a hit with the local community here in Boscombe that there are now plans to open Unity International Cafes in Poole and elsewhere across Dorset.
Rita El-Gazali, who chairs UinV, says the cafe has helped develop friendships. “It encourages an exchange of ideas and teaches people about the richness of other cultures.” This is something Rita understands as she has both Russian and Sudanese roots, and as a child travelled between Moscow and Sudan. But she says that she never truly appreciated the beauty of the different cultures that were so familiar to her until she settled in England. “I used to go to the Bolshoi but it never occurred to me at the time just how special it was.”
Rita believes that since the Brexit referendum attitudes have tended to harden towards migrant communities. “The Government has succeeded in isolating us,” she says sadly. “But the Unity International Cafe brings everyone together over food and sharing personal experience. There’s a tremendous sense of community spirit.”
Dr Parvin Damani agrees. She is a senior community adviser and interfaith expert.
“The café is all about friendships across borders,” she declares. “People from different parts of the world are getting on just fine, but the politicians are making a mess because they didn’t understand life on the ground.”
With representatives of 23 ethnic groups involved and 30 or more people a month attending the lunches, for many the Unity Cafe is a welcome escape from the negative impact of politics. It is also a wonderful way to celebrate the fantastic diversity of Bournemouth
Organisers stress that the monthly lunch really is for everyone, and that includes native English people too. Amongst the diners is Vivien Mitchell, a retired businesswoman and self-confessed foodie. She has already pitched in to help prepare the food for today’s lunch, and is waiting to taste the results.
“The café is fantastic,” she enthuses. “The food, the people and their culture are all so wonderfully diverse. So much love is put into the cooking it tastes amazing. It’s produced in a totally different way from a restaurant. It’s real home-cooking, not done for profit, and it encourages people to share and integrate.”
UinV secretary Farhana Begum Kayum, who is at the lunch with her young daughter Linya, agrees: “The cafe is special because it brings people from many different backgrounds and all walks of life together. We may be specialists in our own cultures but there is so much to learn from each other.”
Let’s do lunch!
The Unity International Cafe serves lunch on every second Wednesday of the month at The Friends Meeting House,
16 Wharncliffe Road, Bournemouth, BH5 1AH.
For more information and details about booking lunch go to unity-lunch.org.uk