Know when
to fold them

In Manchester migrant women are making dumplings and pastries to fund English language classes, reports Clare Wiley

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This isn’t your average English class. Bowls of herbs and spices line the tables and cooking smells fill the air. Words that don’t normally find themselves in a language class are written on the whiteboard: mix, steam, prawn, dough. A group of 14 women begin to fold chicken and prawn wontons into delicate parcels, laughing and chatting as they go.

The session, run by a new organisation called Heart & Parcel, allows women from migrant communities to learn English — and teaches them how to make dumplings at the same time. During today’s workshop, at a colourful community centre in Levenshulme, Manchester, the women are making Chinese wontons and practising their conversation skills. The atmosphere is relaxed and welcoming, free of the pressure of typical language classes.

Samreen*, who’s from Bangladesh and moved to Longsight in September last year, says it isn’t like other classes. “This class is so good because you have the two things at the same time – cooking and learning English. I really enjoy it – it’s not boring.”

Almost every culture has some version of a filling wrapped in pastry or dough

Heart & Parcel launched several months ago and has since reached 45 women through monthly sessions in Cheetham Hill, Salford and Levenshulme. Most learners are immigrants, some refugees and asylum-seekers, with diverse backgrounds that include Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Cameroonian, Libyan, Syrian, Kurdish, Iraqi, Egyptian, Albanian-Greek, Cantonese, Sudanese and Somali.

Dumplings are uniquely universal; almost every culture has some version of a filling wrapped in pastry or dough. So far the women have collectively made Polish pierogi, Chinese lamb dumplings called jiaozi and Iraqi pastries. On the menu next month: Bangladeshi coconut dumplings. The organisation’s grub (and its ethos) can also be sampled by the public at one of its intimate supper clubs. Diners try delicious home-made fare from around the world and have a go at folding pastry parcels themselves – the cash raised goes towards supporting the language classes.

Heart & Parcel was founded by Karolina Koscien and Clare Courtney. The pair have a life-long love of dumplings – pierogi for Polish-born Koscien, and dim sum for Courtney, who lived in Hong Kong. When Courtney returned to the UK last year after spending several years teaching in China, she was dismayed at how funding for government-run ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) classes had been slashed. Immigration rates were soaring and new arrivals were being pressured to learn English, but didn’t have enough real opportunities to do so. Waiting lists for ESOL classes were growing, with tens of people clamouring for a handful of places.

“We decided to take matters into our own hands,” says Courtney. “We thought about us, me and Karolina. We became friends though sharing our love of food. We used to make pierogi at Karolina’s house. We found it was a really nice time to chat, to completely air our worries without even thinking about it. So we decided to put two and two together.”

Existing ESOL classes are relatively target-driven, striving for specific outcomes in order to hold on to their funding, explains Courtney. “Those aims are very unrealistic and not suitable, not actually targeting the individuals’ needs. We thought let’s take away all of that, and let’s sit with these women. Let’s use dumplings as a method to engage, and see what they want and need.”

Many women are desperate to learn English but aren’t getting the chance

Heart & Parcel is not the only project that uses food in an effort to integrate female migrants. Based in south west London, the Chickpea Sisters were a group of refugee and migrant women who met weekly to cook, as well as share their experiences and hardships. They’ve now expanded into a thriving social enterprise that caters for parties and events. They’re even planning to release a cookbook. And in east London, Mazi Mas is a “roaming restaurant” supporting women from migrant and refugee communities, providing opportunities for those who want to pursue careers in the food industry to gain paid work experience.

The Heart & Parcel sessions are in high demand, particularly in Levenshulme, which is home to a large number of immigrant families. The team is finding that many women are desperate to learn English – to learn to drive, to work, for everyday conversation – but aren’t getting the chance. Heart & Parcel also focuses on drawing out participants’ innate skills, building their resilience and helping them integrate into life in the UK.

“This is the frustrating thing because they’ve got all these skills and resources behind them but there’s a barrier to [learning] English and they’re being judged on this reason alone,” says Courtney. “It’s frustrating because they want to help, they want to learn English; they want to make a difference.

“That’s what really bugs me because David Cameron has been saying recently that Muslim women are not integrating, and as a result that is also tying into extremism. It’s really bad, this poisonous language being used to label these women. Already they’re seen as a problem that needs to be fixed, they’re seen as unworthy. But we’re seeing these women with so many skills, so much knowledge, so much experience, but they need a chance and the access. All the odds are stacked against them.”

Sharina* has been living in the UK for just over a year – before that, she lived in Spain for 12 years after leaving her home country of Bangladesh. She’s found England to be more accepting of Muslim culture. “It was hard for me to get a job in Spain. I had a job at a jewellery store but they wouldn’t let me wear my headscarf. It was a hard life for us there.”

Sharina’s husband works as a chef. She says they have a good life in Manchester. “It’s much better in England, I can stay at home to look after the children.” She too gets a lot from the classes. “I like to learn English and learn to cook. There wasn’t anywhere to practise English in Spain. Here we can practise talking.”

*Names have been changed. Photo: Heart & Parcel

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