Winnipeg cooking class helps refugees feel at home

When the chopping starts so does the laughter at a special cooking school for refugees in Winnipeg.

Students from around the world make friends as they fry at Mary Jane’s Cooking School

Meals and cooking make for great cultural exchange in homestay homes. (Chris Read/CBC)

When the chopping starts so does the laughter at a special cooking class for refugees in Winnipeg.

While cutting up garlic for a stir-fry, Abdi Rahman said men don't cook much in Somalia, where he was born.

Rahman, who shares a house with his brother and two other men, said while his newfound skills are questioned, they're also appreciated.

"They ask me like, 'Did you make it?' Then they are like, 'We don't want to eat it.' But once they taste it …" Rahman said with a laugh, explaining they scarf down the dishes.

Mary Jane's Cooking School, a registered charity located in the Wolseley area of Winnipeg, offers classes that tend to be aimed at community development. This class, called Making Friends, Making Foods, is funded by the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization of Manitoba.

The goal is to teach four refugee men how to cook dishes that are typically eaten in Canada.

"Men have been identified as a group who could really use [the] skill of cooking because often refugee men, they come from countries where it is a shameful thing for them to be cooking," said school operator Mary Jane Eason. "So men come here without the skills of cooking and if they don't have sisters or women in their lives, they're really at a loss."

​"They love cooking. There's no problem at all cooking," said Eason.

In fact, Asdedom Haile Tesfay, who is from Eritrea and came to Canada two months ago, said his wife and children are excited that he's bringing home supper.

"[My wife] is very happy. She is waiting for me to eat this one," he said with a laugh.

"They can't sleep. They are waiting for me. They are happy."

Left to right: Abdi Rahman Ahmed, Noor Mohamed Ibrahim, Paulette LaFortune, Mary Jane Eason, Asdedom Haile Tesfay and Anthony D'Souza cook together at Mary Jane's Cooking School. (Chris Read/CBC)
The refugees eat more whole foods, something Eason supports.

"I've always very much appreciated working with them, because I find that their attitude towards food sort of resonates with how I feel about food," she said. "And their way of approaching food is a very natural one."

Socializing is done around the dinner table everywhere. That's one of the reasons Anthony D'Souza, who moved from India three years ago, joined the class.

"Food is the main social centre point, so if you are invited or you invite somebody, you know the food they are eating or they like," he said.

"It's wonderful to make the bond become faster."

Sometimes the ingredients — particularly cheese — can seem a bit strange to some refugees, but all of them agree one particular dish goes over very well — pizza.

"Last week we learned to make pizza, which is an all-time favourite for everybody, especially the kids," D'Souza said.

While putting their finishing touches on the stir-fry, the refugees remarked it wasn't just the delicious dishes that left them feeling full, but also the sense of accomplishment.

With files from Chris Read and CBC's Information Radio