Refugee Week: five refugees reveal their journeys into the hospitality industry

17 June 2021 by

The Caterer celebrates the refugees who, often fleeing war and unrest, sometimes leaving behind their families, have forged a career in the hospitality sector, demonstrating creativity, resilience and fortitude.

In recognition of Refugee Week (14-20 June), The Caterer spoke to five members of the industry who arrived in the UK seeking sanctuary to understand their different stories and experiences in the sector, whether they have set up their own business or are creating their careers in existing companies.

Their journeys range from a caterer crowdfunding a training school for other refugees to a Hotel Catey winner, a professional boxer opening his first venue and a first-time restaurateur at the age of 80.

The theme of Refugee Week 2021, ‘We Cannot Walk Alone', is an invitation to extend your hand to someone outside your circle, who has had an experience you haven't, or is fighting for a cause you aren't yet involved in.

Manjula Patel, owner, Manju's

Manjula Patel (pictured above) is the owner of Manju's, a Gujarati restaurant in Brighton. She was forced to leave her home in Uganda in 1972 when Asians were forced out by president Idi Amin.

"I was born in Gujarat, India, in 1936, but grew up in Uganda. I wasn't a good student, so my mum said, ‘come on Manju', and taught me to cook when I was young. We were making tiffins of food just to bring money into the family.

"In 1972 all Ugandan Asians were forced to leave the country by president Idi Amin, so I left for the UK with my two young sons. We had no money and had to leave everything behind, which was very hard for me. The third day after I arrived, I started working as a machine operator in a garment factory in London. I stayed there for 27 years while bringing up my sons.

"I like to work, and my dream was always to own my own restaurant. In London I cooked for a lot of people who would tell me to open one, but I could never manage it. After I retired my sons moved to Brighton, and in 2016 they bought a restaurant [Manju's] to surprise me. I was 80 years old and so happy.


"I'm in charge of the restaurant. I cook there every night and then I go out to the dining room to meet all the guests. We have a lot or regular customers and it's nice when people recognise me and stop me in the street or at the beach. I love talking to the guests, but the work is hard and I need quite a lot of support. We serve the same family recipes that I learned from my mum in Uganda and I still make at home. I cook with my daughter-in-law at the restaurant and all the staff are like family. We love working together.

"The past year has been so hard as Manju's has been closed since March 2020. It's a tiny restaurant with 24 seats, so we're waiting until social distancing is relaxed to reopen. The whole family is involved in the restaurant, so everyone has been at home and it hasn't been easy. We've recently started to bottle and sell our chutneys in stores around Brighton, and it's been good to keep us active.

"The next thing we want to do is sell Indian snacks in some local shops and we'd love to write a book. All the family recipes are written down and people always ask for them. We're also looking at offering some cooking classes and would donate the profits to charity.

"My advice to anyone who wants to open their own restaurant is, why not? Do it. The work is hard, but anybody can try."

Sohail Ahmad, founder, Eggoland

Sohail Ahmad
Sohail Ahmad

Professional boxer Sohail Ahmad is about to open his first restaurant, Eggoland, in London's Fitzrovia. His journey started at the age of 11 when he came to the UK on his own after fleeing war in Afghanistan.

"All I know from Afghanistan is war. We went through life struggling through poverty, hardship and insecurity. I didn't know if I was going to be living or dying the next year or day – nothing was certain.

"My uncle had funded a trip for my dad to come to the UK, but he couldn't leave my younger sisters and mum – a house without a man was not safe. So I volunteered to leave and take that responsibility. I wanted to do something for myself and hopefully have a better future and to be able to support my family.

"At 11 years old in December 1999 I left the refugee camp in Pakistan. I travelled to Europe by myself, with people I didn't know. It took about five months to reach the UK by all means of transport – trucks, trains, planes and walking.

"I arrived in Kent in April 2000 and was placed in accommodation for refugee kids and unaccompanied minors by the social services. I knew I couldn't find work in Kent, and my ultimate goal was to earn money to send back to mum and dad, so I told social services I'd be happier in London with people from my background.

"I started school, but I couldn't speak English. I started doing newspaper rounds and working in a restaurant, where I washed dishes, plates and pans every Saturday for £10. All the money I collected I sent back to mum and dad so they could eat and pay for education for my siblings. I did it because I had to – it was the only way to earn money and I had to lie that I was 16 or 17 years old, otherwise they wouldn't give me a job.

"I was bullied as a kid. I couldn't speak English and I got beaten up. One day I thought, that's enough. I don't have an older brother to look after me, so I need to learn how to fight. It was me against everyone else. I started doing sport, firstly Taekwondo, and I was good at it – I became a British champion – and then I moved into boxing, where I won regional amateur championships. I won 16 professional fights with only one loss.


"With the sport and so much going on, with GCSEs, A-levels and work, I didn't have a day off – I was constantly working. I had also started working in a catering business called Passage to India, beginning by washing plates and progressing to become a chef, catering for 100-200 people. That's how the love really developed for catering and the hospitality and food industry.

"I always said that when I retired from fighting I would go into hospitality. I came up with the idea for Eggoland in 2019, and the opportunity came about sooner than I thought. I'm about to open my first restaurant in central London, which is something I've always dreamed of.

"It's a fast-casual dining restaurant serving eggs and burgers – I'm a massive foodie, but when I'm training I have to constantly watch what I eat, so I like to eat stuff that I can enjoy and not feel guilty. It will also offer vegan and veggie options and be 100% halal, which is a massive thing for me being Muslim. There's a gap when it comes to halal restaurants in the West End – they're a struggle to find unless it's a kebab shop – so I wanted to create something that's trendy, upbeat, cool and halal."

Arjeta Arapi, director of food and beverage, Montague on the Gardens

Arjeta Arapi
Arjeta Arapi

Arjeta Arapi is director of food and beverage at Montague on the Gardens, part of Red Carnation hotels, in London's Bloomsbury. She moved to the UK at the age of 17 from Albania after the Kosovo war.

"I was 17 when I moved here to the UK, 22 years ago. My home country is Albania, and I grew up working in my father's restaurant in Mirditë. My father was very strict when I was a child and, looking back, it is amazing he allowed me to leave Albania to join my then fiancé.

"The Kosovo war had caused a lot of devastation just before my departure and there was a lot of movement to and from the countries bordering the country. I travelled to the UK with my father's cousin and we came into the country on the Eurostar.

"We arrived in June 1999. I immediately declared my status and, due to my age, I had to be sheltered in a room as a refugee until I was 18. Once I'd had my 18th birthday I was allowed to move and stay with my fiancé, who was already working and renting a flat.

"In 2003 my fiancé and I married and I started work with Red Carnation hotels at the Montague on the Gardens as a waiter. By this time my status in the UK was one of indefinite leave and soon after I was granted British citizenship.

"Since then, with the support of Red Carnation, which is family-run and believes in loyalty, I have worked hard to develop my career. I was made a supervisor in 2004 and three years after that I was promoted to assistant restaurant manager.

"I had my second baby in early 2008 and shortly after I returned to work, I became restaurant manager. In 2011 my role changed to assistant food and beverage manager, I won F&B Manager of the Year at the Hotel Cateys in 2017, and in 2019 I was promoted to my present role of director of food and beverage.

"My role now involves looking after all the food and beverage developments at the Montague on the Gardens. It includes working with the chef and his team, reporting to the general manager and working closely with the deputy general manager. During lockdown I was part of the skeleton team that moved into the hotel in July 2020. Lockdown also enabled me to learn many other skills – we've all pitched in and done all sorts of jobs around the hotel.

"I'm not done yet – my aim is to be a general manager, hopefully with Red Carnation. I've never looked back since joining them and I know they would support me whatever I do.

"My advice for anyone arriving in the UK as a refugee is know what you want to do and how to get there. Love the job you do, be dedicated to whatever job you choose and work with an amazing team (I even have an Acorn winner in mine). And if you choose hospitality, it is a wonderful place to grow and develop. It provides lots of opportunities."

Davood Kazemian, service team, vending, BaxterStorey

Davood Kazemian
Davood Kazemian

Davood Kazemian is part of the vending service team for BaxterStorey. He came to the UK in 2000 from Iran.

"I fled Iran to come to the UK. After initially pursuing a career in software engineering at university in Nottingham, I turned my attentions to hospitality, working at a local pizzeria.

"Food has always been an important part of my life. Being Persian, food has always brought friends and family together and it's always the highlight of any day. Despite studying something very different, I decided a career in food was something I felt closely connected to.

"I joined BaxterStorey six years ago and in my current role I help facilitate the provision of food in the workplace. Where we are, there are limited food options outside, so it's important that we are able to provide something that people look forward to. It is the highlight of their day.

"This is why I came into hospitality. Every single day is different and I'm able to turn my hand to so many things to keep busy. It also gives you broader business and life skills, which other sectors don't offer so quickly and readily.

"Like many refugees, the sector has played an important role in how I have built a life in the UK. It has opened so many doors for me. When I first came here, the language barrier meant it was hard to find work and settle. Hospitality has not only helped me integrate with British culture, but it has also enabled me to learn about so many others, too.

"I now use my experience to guide other refugees who have come to the UK from Iran. Through my church, I am often asked about careers and job opportunities; I have no hesitation in recommending hospitality as a career. It can bring so much joy to people, both professionally and personally."

Mursal Saiq, co-founder, Cue Point

Mursal Saiq
Mursal Saiq

Mursal Saiq was born in Kabul and came to the UK with her family in the 1990s as an asylum seeker fleeing the Afghanistan civil war. She co-founded Afghan barbecue catering brand Cue Point in 2017, runs racial equity courses and is looking to crowdfund a school and restaurant to train refugees in hospitality skills.

"We already employ refugees – it's part of the ethos of the company. If you're an inclusive company you can't just be inclusive of recipes, you must be inclusive in representation, employability, intersectionality.

"On 21 June we're launching a crowdfund to raise £30,000 and open Cue Point Kitchen, a restaurant employing refugees, immigrants and other marginalised individuals. Our research found that in the hospitality industry, only 6% of marginalised people are in higher rungs of management; that is ridiculous when the industry is made up of 67% marginalised people. It's a huge chunk of people, and yet statistically they're not at the higher end. Why is that?

"You realise it's got a lot to do with personal traumas, generational traumas, generational wealth. This is the solution that I've been working on for the past year: employing such individuals, training them in multiple aspects, such as English, restaurant management, cooking and operations. We want to help grow these individuals to be head chefs, to be owners, then the generational wealth of their families will grow and you've got more connections for marginalised people. That causes systemic change in the industry.

Cue Point
Cue Point

"It's hard work. I'm going to need a lot more trauma counselling in order to help these people. But that's part of it. "We hope to open the restaurant later this year. It's going to be a school that operates as a restaurant, as well as serving the wider business. You can be employed after your training with us, and we're also trying to come up with recruitment partnerships with other businesses. We will continue to look after our alumni – if you're having trouble, you know where to go.

"I want to make sure that there's something that we're doing with our for-profit that causes some sort of change. It's not going to be for us who have gone through it, but if we can make their hopes and dreams in the hospitality world happen, then to me that is doing so much more for the industry.

"We're also running Lunch & Learn: Racial Equity. Attendees enjoy a meal but the main crux of it is a racial equity course. We identify racism in different ways. I find that the word racism scares people. It's not a dirty word, it's not a bad word. It doesn't make you a horrible person if you're racist. I'm racist, but I'm on an anti-racist journey to learn and deconstruct the colourism within me. And once we've learned to recognise it, we move on to language acquisition and tools that will help give people the confidence to have these conversations so that they stop running away from them and the same things don't keep happening."

The Cue Point Kitchen GoFundMe crowdfund will go live here on 21 June at 9am

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