• Photograph: Leanne Kitchen (SBS Food)Source: SBS Food
Putting down roots in a new country is tough. But this NSW high school is giving refugee parents a helping hand through food and community engagement, proving there is such a thing as a free lunch, and it can change people’s lives.
Sophie Knox

10 Mar 2016 - 4:54 PM  UPDATED 28 Mar 2018 - 3:50 PM

It’s a scorching 40°C day at NSW’s Fairfield High School. Its 1200 children are shielded inside air-conditioned rooms studying a licorice all-sorts of education, from trigonometry to JRR Tolkien. A handful of their hot and hungry parents are milling outside the entrance to a school building. The door opens and respite comes in the form of a well-cooled room and vegetable biryani.

The building in which the parents enjoy this Iraqi dish is a far cry from the storage facility it used to be several years ago. In its place stand a vibrant meeting room, commercial kitchen and office space, plus a market garden. Welcome to the Parents Café Fairfield Inc, where community harmony changes lives. (Despite the name, it's not actually a café – more on that later.)

As well as offering a reason for parents to come together, it has become a life-saving force among hundreds of refugees in the Fairfield area. Through the experience of food, new arrivals reconnect with people who share the same challenges and carry the same rich history and cultural backgrounds that would otherwise be lost in the machinations of re-settlement. As well as hospitality and horticultural courses, the service provides welfare assistance, qualification recognition, hair and beauty training, excursions to local services and, most importantly, a platform for parents to talk about their needs and feel empowered by reclaiming their independence.


Here’s how it happened

The foundation of the Parents Café lies in Fairfield’s demographic. It features a high proportion of Iraqi and Syrian residents and all the ethnic and religious cultures that exist within that community. (The area boasts one of the largest intakes of Iraqi refugees in Australia.) African communities, the Karen Burmese peoples and Sri Lankan families are also represented in the area’s mix. As a result, local services are set up to assist these people with settlement. One of those services is Fairfield High School’s Intensive English Centre (IEC) and its existence triggered the materialisation of the Parents Café.

Thuria, Eman, Shamiran, Janeet, Nadra, Amera, Wafa and Haitham help out in the Community Kitchen. Photograph: Parents Café Fairfield Inc

Head back to 2008. The IEC conducted a survey, which revealed 30 per cent of its attendees were not eating breakfast. Grants were won to establish a breakfast club, where students were nourished before their day began and parents received guidance from community officers about local services. These information sessions were so successful that all stakeholders, including the school’s staff, believed ongoing sessions for newly arrived parents should be a permanent fixture at Fairfield High.

And so it happened. On Thursday afternoons,  from 1-3pm, a shared meal preceded information sessions in rooms on school grounds. The gathering was christened the Parents Café. Not because it was held in a café, but rather because its casual inference encouraged reluctant parents to attend meetings they might otherwise consider daunting or even terrifying.

Fast-forward to 2016 and this service has grown to inhabit its own building and community garden, and has attracted the praise of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. One of its staff members, Deena Yako, was invited to present the successes of the Parents Café at the UN in Geneva in 2011. In 2012, António Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees from 2005-2015, visited Fairfield High School and its Parents Café, where he declared this service an example of global best practice in supporting refugee students and parents as they adjust to life in their new country. 


The Parents Café that's not actually a café...

There are many pillars that strengthen the architecture of the service. Let’s start with the Community Kitchen – it’s the café’s crowd-puller. “We identified food as a common interest among both women and men. Cooking brings people together,” declares Deena Yako, Community Development Worker at the Parents Café Fairfield Inc. After the success of the breakfast club, the commercial kitchen was built in 2014, along with the community lounge room and the office space for Deena, who works part-time, and Haitham Jaju, the Parents Café full-time coordinator. Both Deena and Haitham are migrants from Iraq, so they’re fully aware of the challenges faced by refugees settling into Australian society.

Under the auspices of the kitchen, the parents work to a roster and volunteer to cook from their own catalogue of cuisine for those in attendance at the information sessions, now held daily. “Even if they’re not officially trained, that’s okay. They can cook for the group and feel like they’re giving back. Many women in the service may not want to socialise but are happy to cook in the kitchen,” notes Deena.

“We’ve also run a program in the Community Kitchen to introduce different cuisines from around the world to the participants of the service. Chefs have taught our members how to cook culturally different dishes, from Indian, Ethiopian, Thai and Lebanese to Indonesian, Oriental and Middle Eastern. We want the community to be exposed to other cultures as well,” says Deena.

“Newly arrived people often have no friends or connections – this place provides them with that new start, and they feel like they belong.” -Haitham Jaju

One of the purposes of the Community Kitchen is to be an icebreaker – a taste of what it’s like to work in a safe informal environment, regardless of religion or ethnic background. “Then they go to TAFE to get qualified, but we still hold their hands. We try to help them overcome the stigma of being a refugee in Australia. They want to show they’re active members of the community,” explains Deena.


Catering to the community

The other pillar of this formidable service is the social enterprise catering business. The café’s co-ordinator Haitham explains: “Through the catering social enterprise, we deliver food handling training, hospitality, cooking, operations, and now we have about 45 women and 20 men who are certified in hospitality. Since 2011, we have completed more than 200 catering jobs.”

The menu is a rainbow of multicultural diversity. Traditional Iraqi and Iranian dishes sit alongside African treats, Greek snacks and Persian sweets. The catering enterprise offers a traditional Iraqi or Persian Tea Ceremony. Workers from the Parents Café attend events, private functions, festivals and refugee welcome dinners, wearing traditional costumes, often crafted by the sewing group at the café, and serve tea and coffee in the traditional manner in which it is celebrated in their homeland.

Haitham believes the purpose of this tea ceremony transcends the business potential. “It gives parents an opportunity to be proud of their history and their culture. It’s nice for a refugee to be looked at in a positive light, rather than being linked to war-torn countries, in need and on social services. It’s a way for these people to tell others about the rich culture they left behind.”

The catering business is now a self-funded endeavour, generating profit from its work, 70 per cent of which is paid as wages to the parents; 30 per cent goes back into the business for program development and facility upgrades.

Haitham Jaju and Deena Yako discuss projects for the future. (Photograph: Leanne Kitchen)

Down the garden path

A further extension of the Parents Café is the market garden. Currently suffering from disrepair after the fierce storms earlier this year, it is normally a vibrant green haven, featuring productive garden beds, rainwater tanks, an undercover area for workers and an outdoor oven, which is used for on-premise functions and the catering business.

Deena explains, “The long-term outcome of planting the garden is to open a community market, so people can buy produce that’s affordable, addressing the food security issues within Fairfield.” Another purpose of the community garden is to address the expertise of the parents who have farming backgrounds but not the local work experience employers demand.

 “We’ve linked some of the students from Fairfield High School to the garden and run projects with TAFE. The idea is to target the intergenerational conflict that occurs between parents and young people,” Deena says. The current focus is to remove the debris from the storm damage and re-plant all the diverse plants, from Burmese chillies and African rosella plants, to herbs and fruit trees that match the specific cultural needs of the community.


Smart money

So where does the funding for this initiative come from? The Sydney Community Foundation, the Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation and a modest contribution from Fairfield High School. The concept of budgeting and spending hard-fought funding dollars is part of the education focus at the café. “We encourage the parents to do the budgeting, targeting their need to budget in their new home. And they need to hunt down the freshest produce at the most reasonable prices. It’s basically an education program about how to manage a household budget,” Deena says.

Nabeel Yousif, an Iraqi man who proudly proclaims that he came to Australia on Anzac Day in 2013, describes how the Parents Café is helping him fast track his qualification recognition as a mathematics teacher. “I enjoy coming here because I laugh and enjoy myself. I can always talk to Haitham. I want to improve my language to become a teacher of mathematics.” Nabeel’s twins, a 13-year-old girl and boy, both attend Fairfield High School and often drop into the café to say hi to their dad while he learns useful skills, such as how to navigate Centrelink over a plate of burghul and beef bites.

Haitham says, “Newly arrived people often have no friends or connections – this place provides them with that new start, and they feel like they belong. We also try to encourage them not to suppress their needs. They come from a place where there is no freedom of speech.”

Adel, Deena, Elham, Janeet, Asma, Haitham Jaju at a tea ceremony at The Parents Café. (Photograph: Lisa Cross)


The ripple effect

Given the success of the Parents Café, it’s no wonder 12 other schools are replicating this model across NSW, fashioning the service to meet their own community’s needs and cultural make-up. Deena reinforces that Fairfield’s own student profile is changing. “We’re getting a larger number of Iraqi and Syrian refugees due to the conflict in those countries, and those young people may have faced more trauma so they require more assistance.”

Ultimately, Haitham would like to see the Parents Café fulfil the needs of the entire refugee community. “We would like to continue to help parents, but also the specific requirements of young children, grandparents and teenagers, and to keep focusing on qualification recognition, settlement assistance, health, parenting skills, teenage tertiary requests and how children can support parents.

“We take a tree from one garden and plant it in another, but then we need to link all those roots again. That’s the purpose of the Parents Café.” This simple grassroots initiative shows how community harmony can make the world of difference, and that food really is an international language.

Photographs by Leanne Kitchen and Parents Café Fairfield Inc.

For more information about the program, head here.