Working in Rural & Regional Areas- Geelong Cooking Group
“Much more than cooking”
When bicultural worker Vajiheh Mohseni began her Geelong cooking group for Afghan men, even she was surprised at the range of positive responses. ‘It was very much more than cooking!’ she said.
Vajiheh is funded by Foundation House for two days a week at Geelong’s Glastonbury Community Service. She began the cooking classes partly out of concern that a lack of food preparation skills was leading to digestive and nutritional problems for the men. Participants were men she had worked with, or who were referred from settlement workers. There was a mix of older and younger men. ‘I tried to pick up people who were otherwise at home all day,’ said Vajiheh, based on her experience that people unable to work or attend classes were at the highest risk of becoming disengaged and depressed.
Vajiheh’s mother was called in to assist, and the program was planned to run with a small group of six to eight. Not only were the participants highly enthusiastic about learning cooking skills, but a range of other benefits soon emerged. The smells and flavours of traditional dishes were powerful reminders of home, of their families and mothers, and of their traditional celebrations.‘While we were waiting for the food to cook, there was talking and singing, little jokes,’ said Vajiheh. There were exchanges of stories, and people brought along puzzles and poems.
The group ran from a small kitchen at Diversitat, a large settlement service which had the benefit of being familiar to the participants. However, there was no room for the men to sit and eat, and Vajiheh initially expected the men would take the food home with them. But rather than eat alone, they preferred to stand around the kitchen so they could eat together. Snezana Krstic, CALD Team Leader of Torture and Trauma Counselling at Glastonbury, said: ‘Some people wonder how cooking is related to mental health. But the group became a favourite gathering place for men who felt a bond and camaraderie with others in similar circumstances. There was laughter, joy and feelings of belonging.’ There were other unexpected benefits. ‘I think the men now appreciate what their daughters and wives have been doing!’ Vajiheh laughs.
Word spread, and more men wanted to join the group than there was room for in the tiny kitchen. After the two original sets of classes, there was enough demand for Vajiheh to run the program again, and she is now looking at further groups, perhaps for other demographics such as young women. Vajiheh’s innovative approach also includes organising a program in Afghani community languages with the Geelong community radio station, 94.7fm. She felt this was an important means of connecting to the community, especially to people who were not literate, or were housebound. The counselling team at Glastonbury say that Vajiheh is a wonderful resource in terms of understanding Afghan culture, and for engaging vulnerable clients, as the Afghani community in Greater Geelong continues to grow. The impact of this work on mental health has been formally recognised, with Vajiheh being nominated for a 2013 Barwon Mental Health Week Wellbeing Awards. She has also received an award for her work from the Afghan community itself, in recognition of her contribution.