The first of our regular features on the work done by volunteers.
The plates of steaming hot food handed out to some hungry people in a Sheffield church hall are proof that a social cooking group is showing no signs of slowing down.
It is a typical lunchtime at St Andrew’s United Reformed Church on Upper Hanover Street for a meeting of the Open Kitchen Social Club.
A large group gathers every Monday to cook and eat food, but they come for more than just the great grub.
Board games and table tennis matches take place across the hall while the crowd waits to be fed – and that human contact is just as important as the food which is about to be eaten.
The club is in its third year and, according to worker Katelyn McKeown, it is going from strength to strength.
We think that people benefit from having that really solid meal, even if it is only just once a weekKatelyn McKeown
She, along with Firas Sharefy and Ian Nesbitt, established the club in May 2014.
It started in the Regather Trading Co-Operative off London Road, but was quickly moved to the church hall to take advantage of the bigger space.
Initially, the idea was to have a free cafe for destitute refugees and asylum seekers.
The model soon changed, according to Katelyn, of Blackstock Road, Gleadless Valley.
“We wanted, literally, a kitchen that people could be coming and going from, so that people could be more involved,” Katelyn, aged 37, said.
Generous Sheffield outlets like Beanies Wholefoods donate to the group, but the club still buys some of the ingredients needed every week. Anyone who eats at the club can be sure they are getting a good meal.
Chick peas, lentils, fresh fruit and vegetables are in every meal. Vegetarians and meat eaters are catered for.
“We think that people benefit from having that really solid meal, even if it is only just once a week,” Katelyn said.
Non-chefs are roped into peeling and chopping duties. If they become proficient enough at the cooker, they can join the group’s catering team at various Sheffield events.
The group catered at four Refugee Week events this year. They have done work for City of Sanctuary and even provided the food for a wedding last year.
“Each of those will pay us, and any profit we make above our cost will come back into the group to help us with our room hire and buying the ingredients that we don’t get donated,” Katelyn said.
Catering jobs are great for boosting participants’ work experience.
“That is like real work,” Katelyn said. “We’re working to a deadline, we’re working to a budget. We’ve got to make sure it pays. We’ve got to make sure the food is top quality,” she added.
Iranians, Iraqis, Sudanese, Eritrean and Kurdish people make up the bulk of the social club visitors every week, but there are plenty of native Sheffielders who visit the hall too.
Some are homeless while others have a history of mental health problems or alcoholism.
There are rarely any problems between the two groups, Katelyn said.
“We have found the two groups work really well together, they support each other in different ways,” she said.
“We’ve not had any issues bringing those groups together.”
Katelyn, Firas and Ian want the kitchen to keep growing. They are always on the lookout for new people get involved, and rely on word of mouth.
Katelyn can usually be found at the Victoria Hall multi-agency drop-in for refugees on Wednesdays, touting the benefits of coming to the kitchen.
“We want it to be somewhere that people go but they don’t have to go every week – it’s not formal,” Katelyn said.
* Address: St Andrew’s Church Hall, Upper Hanover Way, S3 7RQ. Tel: 07400046368, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
* Opening times: Every Monday, 11 – 3pm.
Firas champions service with a smile
If you have ever dined at Sheffield’s Open Kitchen Social Club, chances are you have come across the cheery Iraqi who goes out of his way to give something back to the country he now calls home.
Firas Sharefy, a founder of the club at St Andrew’s United Reformed Church on Upper Hanover Street, epitomises ‘service with a smile’.
You will get more than a smile with Firas. He will greet you with a hearty laugh like you are a long lost friend.
He is the same with all the guests who come through the door every Monday for some fine food.
Firas, 43, is a firm believer in the social side of the group that he formed with Katelyn McKeown and Ian Nesbitt in May 2014.
Early on, they used the Regather Trading Co-Operative off London Road as their base, before moving to the larger space of the church hall.
Volunteering at the kitchen has given Firas and insight into the culture of his adopted homeland, but it has opened his eyes to other nationalities, too.
“When you start to mix with these multicultural backgrounds, you have to learn their culture as well,” the Gresley Road, Lowedges resident said.
The club has unlocked something every potential guest has in common: They all need to eat.
“Every single person, whatever you are,” Firas said.
“You background, your age, your culture, your language, you need food to survive. It’s the key to bringing everyone together.”
Using food, and the odd game of chess or table tennis in the hall, Firas and the volunteers slowly find out about their guests’ stories.
Most of the time, he said, even the introverted ones open up.
Asylum seeker Firas has lived in Sheffield for eight years and it only took ‘about two or three months’ before he donated his time to some volunteer organisations in the city.
“I went to Voluntary Action Sheffield and said ‘I’ve got free time’. I didn’t want to just sit at home doing nothing,” he said.
“When you give something to others, you feel you are useful. This is the purpose of life.”
He is passionate about making refugees and asylum seekers feel welcome. Firas is a trustee of the City of Sanctuary, helping co-ordinate a drop-in session every Wednesday at Victoria Hall on Norfolk Street.
On Thursdays, you will find him at the Citizens Advice Bureau on Spital Hill.
Firas is happy with his new home. “It’s really nice,” he said. “It has got variety. It’s multicultural, and has mostly friendly people.”
The benefits of living on the edge of the picturesque Peak District are obvious for someone from such a vastly different landscape.
“I love cycling. The view is fantastic,” he said.