How baking is helping torture survivors start a new life

In a room overlooking a rainy garden in north London, a grown man is crying. He is from Iran, and fled to the UK after being tortured by authorities there. This morning he received a letter from the Home Office asking him to come for another interview. He is terrified that he might be sent back.

The man, who has asked me to call him Daniel*, is part of a group of torture survivors from around the world who meet every week at the charity Freedom from Torture to bake bread and support each other. Alex*, another member of the group, gives Daniel a hug. “I had a bad experience of interviews,” says Daniel, his face blank with fear. “My mind is very busy now.”

The bread group was set up by two therapists, Saba Stefanos and Shamsi Mahdavi, employed by the charity and has been running for 10 years. “We thought bread is a common thing for everyone,” says Stefanos of the decision to base the group around baking. “It’s a staple food in every society. The bread brings together the past and the present. They can talk about who made the bread back home, how they ate it together. It enables people who are not able to talk, to talk. And they discover a creativity they never thought they had.”

Just over 29,000 people claimed asylum in the UK between September 2014 and September 2015 – the highest number since 2005, including increased numbers from Eritrea, Syria, Sudan and Iraq. Independent clinical research estimates that up to one third of those had been tortured.

“When you leave, you leave everything. It’s not your choice. And then when you come here your hope is gone. You feel afraid. A lot of people believe what they read in the newspapers. They should not.”

The charity received 1,313 referrals last year, more than a fifth of them children and young people. Survivors came from 78 countries in total, with the highest numbers from Sri Lanka, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“People have had traumatic experiences,” says Stefanos. “They don’t necessarily want to talk about it or maybe they can’t. Perhaps being in a situation with other people who have been through similar things is more therapeutic than therapy.”

Members of the bread group are at different stages of the asylum process, with some having been given either 30 months’ discretionary leave to remain or five years’ asylum or humanitarian protection, while others are still in limbo, not knowing whether they will be allowed to stay. Those who have had their claims accepted – sometimes after years of waiting – are now finally beginning to look for work. Those who are still awaiting a decision, are appealing against a decision or are putting forward a fresh claim are not allowed to work. Instead, they receive support in the form of temporary accommodation, wherever it is offered, and an Azure payment card with £35.39 to spend per week in specified shops. The card cannot be used on public transport.

Back home, the members of the bread group worked in healthcare, fashion, catering or were studying full-time; here some of them have had periods living on the streets, in cars or in mice-infested rooms. “I never thought I would live in a country where I wasn’t born,” Alex tells me. “When you leave, you leave everything. It’s not your choice. You leave to save your life. And then when you come here your hope is gone. You feel afraid. A lot of people believe what they read in the newspapers. They should not.”

Kolbassia Haoussou, a former Freedom from Torture client who set up Survivors Speak OUT within the charity to give clients more of a voice, says negative news coverage of immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers makes life even more difficult. “There is a very strong political will against asylum in the UK,” he says. “What the population get is politicians labelling people seeking safety as unwelcome people, people who create problems, people we need to push away, and the population take it as fact. It creates hostility and sets people against each other.”

“It enables people who are not able to talk, to talk. And they discover a creativity they never thought they had.”

Carla Ferstman, director of Redress, which campaigns against torture worldwide, says there is a direct correlation between torture and the current numbers of asylum seekers trying to enter Europe. “Many of those seeking asylum have been tortured in their home countries and fear torture if they are involuntarily returned,” she says. “Additionally some asylum seekers have been tortured or ill-treated en route, particularly in the staging countries for people smugglers…Furthermore, the practice of detaining asylum seekers and refugees on their arrival in Europe has led to significant examples of torture and ill-treatment, including allegations of rape and sexual exploitation in detention.”

Ferstman says not enough effort is being made to identify torture survivors and ensure they receive the necessary care. Meanwhile, historic allegations of British involvement in post-9/11 rendition, including Guantanamo Bay, and of torture and ill treatment of detainees by British service personnel in Iraq, are not being properly investigated, she says. “The government has consistently said that it abhors torture in all its forms and has taken a leading role in international efforts to prevent torture,” she says. “But unfortunately, it has been less swift to address torture in which its officials have been allegedly involved.”

Back in the garden room, Daniel has put an apron over his black puffer jacket and jeans and has selected ingredients from a trolley laden with flours, herbs and oils to make a flatbread with black seeds. Lee* adds teaspoons of sugar, chocolate and instant coffee to his dough. “Sometimes it’s very difficult to chat with someone else because you don’t really trust them and because your experience is very complicated for someone to understand,” he says. “Here we share our experiences and we support each other.”

Alex is already on his third batch. “Coconut bread is my speciality but today I do something new,” he tells me. He says being in the bread group has given him back his confidence to speak and trust other people again. “The special thing here is there is no judgement,” he says. “Everyone appreciates what we do.”

At the end of the session, Stefanos puts out a plate with the breads fresh from the oven and we sit and eat. Alex is thoughtful. “When I come here, I can relax,” he says. “I can share the pain I feel inside. I miss the group in between. Most of the time I feel alone, but here it is like going home.”

*Some names have been changed.

In December 2015, Freedom from Torture launched An A-Z of Poverty, a series of films by torture survivors about living in the UK. The films can be viewed here.

Photo title: A torture survivor kneads dough

Photo credit: © Freedom from Torture

  • Sally Crum

    This article, for me, goes directly to the pain of the immigrants and offers a solution at the same time.
    It’s so sad and yet so helpful, and hopeful. Thich Naht Hahn has said that world leaders need to make and break bread together. I think he’s right!

  • Helen Mueller

    Dear Friends,
    I was introduced to this wonderful and inspiring site by my sister who lives in Ontario, Canada. It is so refreshing and warms my heart to know that there are so many good things going on because usually we hear only the negative things through the press. I live in Hamburg, Germany, I am a Christian and I believe firmly that we can only overcome what the world is presently experiencing by showing love and helping people in need. I pray that I see the needs of others every day and have the courage to go ahead and do what needs to be done. In my Church a group has been founded to help those who have recently arrived here and need support. I have joined this group and hope I can get involved soon.
    What you are doing with baking is a fantastic idea and I will pass on this and see if it can work here too.Why not! We need to overcome our biased thinking and see people the way Jesus would see them!
    God bless you and I wish you strength and courage to go on doing the wonderful work you are doing.
    Love and best wishes
    Helen