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An interview with Louis Martin, co-founder of the Refugee Food Festival, an event that allows refugees to become chefs in restaurants for the duration of the festival.

How did businesses react to this initiative?

When we had the idea to ask restaurants to open their kitchens to refugee chefs, we thought that convincing restaurants would be the hardest part of the project. It was not. It actually proved to be one of the simplest parts. They immediately realized it was a fantastic opportunity to prove their solidarity and involvement and also to learn about other culinary tastes and cultures!

How can businesses help with the integration of refugees in society?

They can help in a very direct way: by hiring refugees. There is a misunderstanding on what being a “refugee” means. Refugees are citizens who have left their countries because of war or persecutions. Most of them have a long track record of professional experiences and proven skills. We truly believe that global integration happens through work: it enables financial independence, assimilation of social codes, language and self-confidence.

What are the benefit for refugees and businesses participating in the festival?

Many. All of the restaurants are fully booked days in advance, which has implications in terms of visibility and business of course. Mutual exchange of best practices and know-hows to better understand how to use spices, ingredients pairing, cooking methods, etc. Team building for the restaurants as all the staff take part in a positive and meaningful project. The festival also brings professional opportunities for the invited chefs as some of them are hired by the restaurants or by clients for private dinners and events.

©UNCHR_Benjamin+Loyseau+7What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned from the project?

When we see the way the festival is received, we have the feeling that – unlike governments – most of Western Europe civil society stands together with refugees, but does not know how to act to show its solidarity. That’s definitely one of the reasons why the first restaurants got involved so rapidly – this culinary festival was an opportunity to exercise their business while having a concrete positive impact. The Refugee Food Festival is the illustration of the power of civil society empowerment.

What is it about food that breaks down barriers?

Food is universal, it is one of the very few things that we all have in common. We all eat, up to three to four times a day (sometimes even more). At the same time food is the expression of our culture, of who we are and where we come from. This cultural heritage is immaterial, crosses borders and is most of the time easily sharable. It enables to create a meeting point between people of different cultures and triggers mutual understanding by hitting one of the most intimate part of our body: our mouth.

©UNCHR_Benjamin+Loyseau+5What can the private sector learn from this initiative?

The Refugee Food Festival is a citizen-led initiative where citizens, institutions (like UNHCR, partners of the project, municipalities) and the private sector collaborate to create a positive social and business impact. Indeed, the local festivals are organized by citizens who federate various actors to reach the three main objectives of the project: change perceptions regarding refugees, accelerate their access to employment and enhance citizen mobilisation. This innovative model could be applied to other fields and causes.