Food, friends, and fun are the perfect ingredients for a warm Welsh welcome
The 26-year-old arrived in the UK from Honduras in 2019, seeking asylum with his family, and together they were provided with a place to stay in Cardiff. Their hotel room had no kitchen and meals were not included, so Alis and his family were directed to the nearby Oasis, which provides free meals for refugees and asylum-seekers.
Alis was shy at first, he recalls— “I didn't know anything or anyone here and I wanted to hide in the corner”—but his mother seized the initiative and volunteered Alis to wash dishes in the kitchen. He’s been doing it ever since, gradually becoming more and more involved in the operation until today, two years on, Alis is a staff member and Catering Manager in the busy centre. He also cooks in its mobile food trailer, Global Eats.
“Oasis is my second family and my safe space,” Alis says. “It’s my place.”
Volunteering is integral to Oasis as a vital step in helping asylum-seekers and refugees build skills for employment and proficiency in English. The volunteers work primarily in the Oasis kitchen, which provides free lunches five days a week, serving as many as 160 people at a time. The majority of visitors are asylum-seekers and refugees, but everyone is welcome.
Alis’ friend and mentor, Matt, began as a volunteer and is now the Senior Catering Manager. “I was enamoured with how wonderful this place is, I'd never been anywhere like it before,” he says. He started off volunteering at occasional supper club events and food festivals, before being employed to run the centre’s catering department, which uses food as a path to cohesion and integration into the wider Welsh community. “It’s really grown exponentially in the past five years. We offer different avenues of catering, for example at food festivals and cultural festivals, where we take the trailer with us.”
The Global Eats food trailer is the star of Oasis, helping the centre grow its profile and spread its message of tolerance and hospitality. When Alis was still new to the UK, and as an asylum-seeker was unable to seek paid employment, he volunteered to work in the trailer during its biggest event of the year: Green Man, a popular music and arts festival held annually in the Brecon Beacons National Park.
Alis was tasked with taking orders from customers and was terrified. “Don't ask me to do that, please!” he remembers thinking, “I can be behind doing the prep, but not that!” But he faced his fears and embraced the experience. The following year he was back, ready and raring to go, this time as an employee. “Now, I'm excited to go there because I like that environment, of being really, really busy but also laughing with your team. In that moment, you are stressed, happy, everything all at once.”
Alis, who had ten years’ experience working in kitchens in Honduras, transformed the trailer’s menu to reflect the food he knows and loves, introducing Central American dishes such as baleadas and pupusas, as well as better-known items such as tacos and quesadillas.
Back in the Cardiff centre, there is free tea and coffee all day in a café in the central hall, which also features a pool table and table football. The centre’s founder Reynette, says the relaxed environment and welcoming atmosphere of the café is vital: “It is a place where people can come and sit and just be,” she says.
Fifteen years ago, when Reynette and her three co-founders started Oasis, all they could offer were free hot drinks, and most importantly, a place to feel welcome and meet others. “Originally I wanted people to have a safe space where they could come and tell stories and where they could integrate into the wider community.” Since then it has grown into an important part of refugee and asylum-seeker life in the city, while retaining its mission to help newcomers integrate into Wales.
For Reynette and Matt, catering at Oasis is not only about empowering refugees and asylum-seekers to tell their stories through a shared love of food, it is also about refugee employment. “As soon as we're in a position where we can employ people, we should employ people,” says Matt.
But employment is not an act of charity, Reynette stresses. “They may have come from extremely complex jobs, they’ve got resilience… they may speak eight languages, we only speak English, or Welsh,” she says, emphasising how much she has learned from the people that Oasis has welcomed over the years.
The community that exists in and around Oasis has transformed the lives of staff and volunteers, as well as the thousands who have walked through its doors over the years. For Alis, who attended Matt’s wedding last summer as one of his best men, Oasis is the cornerstone of his new life in Cardiff: “I am learning, doing what I love, and meeting people who are showing me that the world is not that bad, you know.”