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Selling bread and running stalls empowers London's refugees


Selling bread and running stalls empowers London's refugees

At markets across London young refugees are running market stalls, gaining confidence and becoming part of the community.
11 October 2023
Two men and a woman pose in the park.

Abdullah, Berenice, Breadwinners Programme Manager, and Abdisa in Victoria Park Market, London. 

LONDON, ENGLAND — For Abdullah and Abdisa, coming to the UK as asylum-seekers meant starting from scratch in a new country and struggling to discover what opportunities there were. They found an answer in Breadwinners, a London-based social enterprise that aims to help young asylum-seekers and refugees find employment and purpose through training, mentoring, networking and entrepreneurship opportunities.

Abdullah, from Afghanistan, and Abdisa, from Ethiopia, together run the Breadwinners stall at the weekly Victoria Park Market selling artisan bread side-by-side with a range of other food traders. “We have the feeling that we are also involved in this community,” says Abdisa. Abdullah agrees, adding, “We have mostly regular customers. And so many dogs!”

The Victoria Park stall is one of 10 operating across London as well as in Brighton, but the stalls are only the most public aspect of the organisation, says Programme Manager Berenice. A social enterprise and  registered charity, Breadwinners supports refugees and asylum-seekers with two-month volunteer training programmes for those who have not yet gained the right to work in the UK, six-month paid programmes in which they take responsibility for running a stall, and office-based programmes where they work as sales representatives. Each programme deepens participants knowledge of business, increases their employability, and improves their confidence and communication. 

“You are by yourself [at the stall]”, says Berenice, “you have to manage things from early morning until the end of the day. No one is telling you what to do, you feel that it is you who has to do the job.” The confidence that comes from that responsibility and trust is immeasurable, she says: “Abdullah could see that he was trusted, that he was improving, and gaining new skills.”

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This valuable experience can lead to long-term employment. Having completed all three Breadwinners programmes, Abdullah is training Abdisa to take over from him at Victoria Park as he gets ready for his next step: a new job as a baker at a popular East London bakery. 

Berenice says Breadwinners wants to help refugees and asylum-seekers build complete lives, not just to subsist.  “Obviously the first thing they need [when they arrive] is shelter, food, the basic things, but it is so much more than that! You’re dealing with humans, and I feel like a lot of the systems treat them like objects, and they need to rebuild everything again,” she says. Helping people rebuild their confidence requires treating them as individuals with their own ambitions, aims, challenges, and concerns, and that requires close personal attention, which Breadwinners achieves through its volunteer mentors.

Abdullah’s mentor, Mathilda, has been with him from the beginning. Mentors shepherd development with advice on writing CVs, applying for jobs, budgeting and strengthening English language skills through conversation. They also advise on other aspects of life, helping them dig out information that can sometimes be hard to find, such as how to join a local sports team, or club, or where to find places to dance or play music. Being new to the UK, many of these simple things are tricky to navigate for young asylum-seekers and refugees. 

Mathilda says the market stall is the perfect engine for personal growth. “If you start incorporating people in communities more it’s just so powerful, and really valuable,” she says. “Seeing Abdullah talk to customers about anything and everything, just seeing that huge step, is so nice to see.”

Abdullah agrees. “When I was in the volunteer training programme, talking with customers, I was a bit shy to explain myself,” he recalls. “Once I came to Victoria Park and had to take on the whole responsibility and talk with customers, I can’t just say nothing! Day by day I learn, and at college, with my friends, this has made me more confident.” While preparing to start his new job, Abdullah is also studying for his A-levels, in chemistry, biology and maths. 

Working at the market stall is, of course, work and experience that will serve them well in future, but it is so much more, say Abdullah and Abdisa.  “When working with Abdullah, you don’t know how time flies! We talk about our lives and share some things about what we are doing now,” Abdisa says.

They have fun and, despite coming from different countries, they have a shared experience and understanding as asylum-seekers who have been forced to flee their homes, and this creates solidarity that is invaluable. “He gets me,” Abdullah says, “how I struggled with careers, language, culture, these kinds of things. We understand each other.”