Peacemeals Iraq Conciliation

Peacemeals in Iraq: Lessons in Resilience

Cath Thompson tells us about running therapeutic cooking classes in Iraq for internally displaced refugee women.

In 2014, the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS) swept through the northern regions of Iraq and captured, killed, enslaved, or forcibly converted many civilians. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were displaced from their homes, and now live indefinitely in camps administered by the United Nations.

Peacemeals Iraq refugee camp

I was invited by an NGO to help set up therapeutic cooking classes at a community centre which primarily assists IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons, or refugees in their own country).

I wrote a curriculum, which was translated into Arabic, and planned to train a local teacher to lead the classes once I left.

Getting Started

My first lessons in patience and protocol came when I was tasked to procure the cooking items for the kitchen.

Peacemeals Iraq market

Everything there takes time. You can’t just go to one store and buy everything you need in one go. Conversations are held and prices negotiated and family heritages compared.

Multiple glasses of tea are drunk, to lubricate the deals of procuring 60 sets of plates (and temporary residency papers, and marriages, and ceasefires, and so on…)

Then I met the teacher, who I will call Hana*. She was a dignified, tiny lady who lived in a tent in a refugee camp with her 6 children. Hana was smart. She had taken the initiative to cook small pastries and baklava and sell them in the market to make a little money for her family.

Working with a local translator, I was there to train Hana in how to teach a cooking class for other women like her. But this class went beyond how to chop onions and prevent cross contamination.

We also wanted to teach coping skills and stress management techniques, and how to actually savour your food and find joy when you are constantly living in crisis mode. All these life skills are built into the curriculum, and have always been the foundation of PeaceMeals.

This class was meant to be a small space of solace and catharsis for survivors: in the kitchen, around the table, then eventually to their wider communities.

Peacemeala Iraq kitchenWe had eight students in this class, plus the teacher I was training, and my translator. The women had never seen a professional kitchen, so we began with the basics: how to use the dishwasher, washing your hands, using separate rags to dry dishes and clean equipment, pulling your hair back (most wear headscarves), etc.

Lessons in Resilience

The best part of those classes was watching them come out of their wounded – and sometimes traumatized – shells. During the first class, barely anyone spoke except to ask me exactly the next step they should do in each recipe. They were afraid of getting it wrong and had very little confidence to take initiative and ask questions.

Peacemeals Iraq womenIn time, after Hana* and I explained the recipes, the students started to take charge and cook without having to verify if they were doing it right. Just halfway through the course, the women were talking with each other, asking loads of questions, and – most importantly – laughing.

Each day when the food was ready, we sat down together in one of the classrooms and ate, and had more guided discussion about self-care skills, stress management, values and goals, their daily struggles, and other relevant psychosocial topics.

Every meal was a lesson in resilience. We sat down and enjoyed it, in defiance of the evil that had tried to crush their spirits.

Everyone has a Story

For one class, we prepared a nice spread of Moroccan eggplant spread, individual lamb pies, and cucumber-yogurt salad with dill.

While eating, we went through a small mindful eating exercise with a date dessert, and I explained to the women that this class is meant for them to enjoy, relax and taste the food they make.

It was a radical concept for these women to have the first go at eating the foods they make, and to savour them.

Usually they procure and prepare food for their family, and they eat the remaining leftovers. It was nice to have them be the guests of honour at the table for once.

One woman offered to the class a bit of her story and explained that she sometimes falls down when she is triggered or scared. Falling down is a common post-traumatic expression here, especially for women. I was instructed to watch out for some women in the kitchen so that they aren’t working with knives, fire, or standing near sharp countertop corners, if they may be triggered.

Graduation Day

Peacemeals Iraq graduation feastThe therapeutic cooking class graduation will go down in my history as one of the most precious days of my life. I am so proud of these ladies for all they accomplished during the cooking course.

Graduation day was a lesson in catering, as we planned out the menu and cooking schedule. Over the course of two days, the students made an enormous spread of food, with healthier twists than the typical local foods.

After a family-style meal for guests and staff, we held a ceremony where the eight students received graduation certificates and the small gift of an apron.  They were so proud of themselves and I felt just like a mama hen.

Peacemeals Iraq offeringAfter weeks of hard work, big meals, and lots of laughs, I am confident that these women will bring their new skills into their families, communities, and, in effect, to this beautiful and broken country.

*Name has been changed for security reasons.

This story has been adapted from these original posts with the permission of the author: part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 4

About the Author

Cath Thompson is the founder and director of PeaceMeals – a program which brings individuals together in the kitchen and around the table for education on cooking, nutrition, and wellness, often in the wake of trauma or difficult seasons of life.

Peacemeals Iraq CathCath has a background in peacebuilding and security, while working in the charitable and philanthropic sectors. Cath loves to gather people around the table to be nourished across the divides of culture, politics, and religion, through good food, good conversation, and good community.

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