A Lunch that does More than Fill the Stomach

November 22, 2022
By Magdalena Wernefeldt

People without papers plan, cook, and serve lunch three times a week at the Hague World House. It is called the Cooking Project and started to ensure people had a substantial meal. The delicious dishes from different parts of the world are enjoyed by everyone, from staff to visitors. And their model showed to do much more than fill the stomach. It makes people feel part of society.

Photo: Sara Azeem

Tuna, sallad, onion, bread …
It’s ten in the morning and Mark Ackon has just arrived at the Hague World House and is unpacking groceries.
– Put us to work! He says to the woman who has been asked to be responsible for today’s lunch.

The Hague’s World House is an information and advisory center, with the aim of giving people who live in the Netherlands without papers, the opportunity to make well-informed decisions about their lives and their future. Since the start in 2011, staff, volunteers and the migrants have shared lunch three times a week and the food is always prepared by the migrants.

Photo: Sara Azeem
Photo: Sara Azeem

Lizebeth Melse, project manager at the Hague World House, says that it started to ensure that people living in difficult conditions get a substantial meal at least once a week.
– Many of the visitors are good at cooking. It is nice to eat together and the food that is served are delicious dishes from all over the world. It is really appreciated by both visitors and staff, says Lizebeth Melse.

Gives people without papers a chance
With time, their model developed into a conscious strategic decision, only letting their target group volunteer within the project.
– We want to give people without papers a chance. If people with papers offer to volunteer, we refer them to other organisations.

In rights-based humanitarian work, participation is an important principle. It means involving people in decisions related to the aid work, asking them to help build temporary housing and toilets, or enabling them to cook their own food instead of having them stand and queue with a plate in their hand. It contributes to a sense of hope to be able to influence one’s own life and that of the family amid the chaos and uncertainty.

The smell of spices and dishes you know since childhood, creates a feeling of home. Being given the responsibility of cooking the food creates belonging.

Another important principle in human relations is reciprocity, simply put the unwritten rules that exist for transfers of gifts and services. Rules around reciprocity exist in all cultures and are linked to a sense of morality and dignity.

Many people on the move, or with experience of being on the move, testify that they feel a debt of gratitude. They wish to return the hospitality they feel they have been shown. The World House’s model helps to even out the power asymmetry that so quickly arises between the marginalized and the privileged.

Remember who you are and where you come from
Taking this into account, the Cooking Project does more than feed empty stomachs. The smell of spices and dishes you know since childhood, creates a feeling of home. Being able to serve food from the home country creates pride and being given the responsibility of cooking the food creates belonging, says Mark.
– It makes them feel like part of society again.

Photo: Magdalena Wernefeldt
Mark Ackon, volunteer.
Photo: Sara Azeem

– We want to show them that they have choices, even if they are limited, says Lizebeth.

This includes daring to step into tough conversations.
– Some need to hear that they must get off drugs and get their act together. I ask them who they were before, and what their aims are. Life can turn around. I remind them that this is not their final destination, says Mark.

“It’s their thing”
Mark asks the visitors to the center if they would like to join the cooking project. Right now, there are about ten people who cook on a regular basis. Together they discuss which dishes to make and how much money can be spent.
– Most of the time, I do the shopping myself, but at times I leave it to them.
Once in the kitchen, whoever has been given responsibility for the day leads the work. They talk about everything between heaven and earth, and the atmosphere rises in step with the temperature in the pots. On weekdays, they cook for 15-20 people. For special events or catering orders, there can be significantly more.

– It’s their thing. We never interfere with menus or schedules, says Lizebeth Melse.
– It is really a gift to the World House that they have taken on responsibility for this part of our work.

The Hague World House

Since 2011, the organisation Stek runs the Hague World House, an information and advisory centre in The Hague for people living illegally in the country. In 2021, close to 1000 people visited the centre.
Since the start, the work has included a cooking project where people without papers cook and serve lunch three times a week. The World House also runs the cake and catering project, the income from the project is used to provide financial support to the undocumented people who donate their time.

Lizebeth Melse is a practitioner within A World of Neighbours.