"I’ll spend my Christmas cooking dinner for modern slavery survivors in Sheffield”
Kathijee Wood will spend this Christmas doing what she loves – cooking for family.
But the family in question won’t be her own.
This December 25, the mum-of-two will be visiting City Hearts safe house in Sheffield, where she will be whipping up a Christmas dinner with all the trimmings, ensuring the house’s residents – all survivors of modern slavery - can enjoy some home-cooking and festive cheer too.
"Everyone needs that feeling of family at Christmas, and a meal can help to create that,” says Kathijee.
"Whenever I visit the house to help prepare a meal, I can feel the entire dynamic change.
"Food makes people happy.”
Growing up in South Africa with a mum and sisters who loved cooking inspired Kathijee to develop her culinary skills as a youngster. Now she regularly visits City Hearts to share these with women who have been rescued from exploitation.
Kathijee also saw at first hand the hardships women could face.
“I saw a lot of physical and sexual violence growing up,” she says.
Kathijee and her husband arrived in the UK 23 years ago, living briefly in London before relocating to Sheffield, where they fell in love with the city and decided to stay.
Kathijee, now aged 48, was working as a planner when she heard about City Hearts anti-trafficking charity at a women’s conference at her local church.
City Hearts supports hundreds of men, women and children each year who have been rescued from modern slavery, and after seeing the difference it made, Kathijee applied for a job on the charity’s operations team - and then decided to volunteer her culinary skills too.
“I couldn’t see myself being a counsellor, but I wanted to give something to help others and what I can offer is my cooking, so I try to use that to make a difference,” she says.
"I notice when I go in every second Friday, the atmosphere quickly changes – it brings an element of fun, and takes their minds off their trauma for a few hours.
"Often when I meet new clients, they are understandably hesitant; they look up as I come in, then carry on with what they are doing.
"I go into the kitchen and once the sounds and smells come out, someone always says, ‘Do you need help? What can we do?’
"Some of these women are malnourished when they join us, so I always provide a starter, main and dessert. It’s a proper dinner party once a fortnight!
"I chose Friday because people love going out to celebrate the weekend. They miss their friends and their old lives, and I see how I can help bring a bit of that excitement back.
"By the time we get to dessert, they are laughing and talking to each other. One young woman brought her baby to the table and asked me to come back the following week for the baby’s birthday.”
Kathijee also explains this process of cooking side-by-side acts as a form of therapy for many women, encouraging to let their barriers down, and share their experiences.
“Last Friday when I walked into the safe house, one woman had a blanket over her head, and another said she wasn’t going to cook, but soon after I started, she came to help and asked to borrow my apron.
”Later, as we prepared the food together, she said cooking reminded her of happy times with her mum who she hadn’t seen for five years.
“People often ask us why the survivors can’t just go back to their home countries. Sadly, it’s not that easy as there is a risk they could be re-trafficked - even by their own families. Some could be killed.”
Government funding initially covers these survivors to be in the safe house for six weeks, so they get three of her delicious meals before they move on to other provisions, including their own homes.
On other evenings the City Hearts staff cook, the survivors may have a takeaway, or sometimes a cinema night with nachos and popcorn. During the day, the women have counselling, health appointments, art therapy, drop-ins, or even college.
Kathijee, who today works as a case worker for the charity, teaches a range of delicious, easy to make meals that can be recreated by the clients.
She talks the women through each step and makes it alongside them, then everyone sits down to eat and enjoy together.
“It is wonderful to be able to combine my love of cooking with my passion for helping others,” she smiles.
"I have always seen food as a way of bringing people together.
"I see all the women from different backgrounds come together to cook. It is so rewarding to see the joy these classes bring to the women, and to know that they are learning valuable life skills to increase independence, that they may not have had the freedom to develop during their time in exploitation.
“My granny was one of those who didn’t grow up with much, but would always share whatever she had.
"When our family gathered, everyone would bring something and there was always plenty.
"My mum learned these skills from my gran - and now I’m teaching my twelve year-old twins to cook. They know in our family, food is how we show love!”
And this year, her twins will stay at home with Kathijee’s husband at their home in Sheffield while she visits City Hearts on Christmas Day for a few hours, to eat dinner with the residents.
"My husband understands my passions, and knows how important the work we do at City Hearts is,” she nods.
"So I’ll enjoy a big Christmas dinner at the safe house at lunchtime, and then in the afternoon I’ll be home with my family - probably snacking on a cheeseboard and a glass of wine!”