I thought I understood the healing power of food during Ramadan – until I cooked with refugees who’d lost everything

Asma Khan

Like all Muslims around the world, during Ramadan, I enjoy breaking my fasts with a sumptuous meal surrounded by family and friends.

Since my childhood, I remember Ramadan as the month in which the whole family got together and ate in the evenings. At sunset, there could be as many as 50 people eating in my house. It was completely chaotic but great fun – so many happy memories.

The day of Eid at the end of Ramadan is particularly special. I’ll be spending the morning with my sons and then go into my restaurant, Darjeeling Express, to distribute traditional sweets to my team.

But I’ll also be thinking about the time I recently spent in Jordan with Islamic Relief UK, meeting refugees from Palestine and Syria. Ramadan is an important spiritual time when we reflect upon the world and our place within it and how we can best help those less fortunate than ourselves.

Wherever Muslims are in the world and whatever their circumstances, sharing a meal together with loved ones is incredibly important, which is why I can’t stop thinking about the women we met on that trip. Women like Umm Zaid from Palestine, who struggle to put a meal on their family’s table.

Umm Zaid ekes out a living scavenging for bread in dustbins, feeding her family with what is salvageable and selling the rest for animal fodder. Her family had been surviving on this dried bread and tea when they were waiting, desperately, to receive a Ramadan food parcel from Islamic Relief.

Umm Zaid came alive when she started cooking. She was powerful. It was an incredible experience, cooking with her and other Palestinian and Syrian refugees. Despite everything they had lost, they had an amazing resilience and we actually had fun together.

I cooked with them at a Safe Space Centre run by Islamic Relief where the women share stories, cook, laugh and cry together.

One of the overriding memories from my trip was when I was cooking a Syrian meal with the group and Alia, from Syria, started weeping as she was stirring the dish. It was her late son’s favourite meal. And it brought back a whole flood of memories.

The women told me that they had stopped cooking meals they used to eat in Syria, as it brought back too many memories of loved ones they had lost and happier times they had spent together. Alia explained that when she cooks that particular meal, she prays for the people who are in prison in Syria or who are stuck in no man’s land between her home country and Jordan, like her brother.

Alia wasn’t crying because she was weak and helpless. And not because she was falling apart. She was in charge of cooking this huge meal, of feeding the whole group. And in that lay her power. She didn’t need sympathy – she wept out of frustration and anger and carried on preparing the meal anyway.

As I watched her, I thought about how cooking is such a powerful and strong healer and how it has completely transformed my life. When I first arrived in the UK, I was living in London, missing my home and family in India and I just felt empty.

I had such a deep longing to return to the bosom of my family in Kolkata. And when I returned to India, I cooked. It was such an emotional experience cooking day in, day out with my mother and my sister, learning so much from our traditions and creating beautiful tastes, textures and aromas.

I knew then that there was nothing I would rather do for a living. It gave my life meaning. I had trained to be a barrister, but I knew that this was not the profession for me. So when I came back to Britain, I set up supper clubs and then my restaurant. And the rest, as they say, is history.

So many women before me have cooked for decades but still question their worth and contributions to their families or communities. In reality, what they have provided is a constant source of care, nurturing not just one, but sometimes two generations – not just by giving them food, but food that was cooked with love.

During Ramadan, I will be reflecting on all the powerful women who have touched my life; from my family members; the refugees I met in Jordan; and the women who work in my restaurant. And I will think about how food unites us all.

We cannot imagine the horror of being forced to flee our homes due to war and terror. But the longing for home is still there, and food becomes the balm that we need to heal our souls when we feel lost. It makes us feel powerful.

But we are nothing if we don’t use this power to support others.

For me, my faith is about how much of a difference I can make to other people’s lives. I am only free if the people around me are free. My parents always raised me to believe that Islam was just as much about this as it is about rituals and worship.

We are on this earth for a reason: to look after others who are less fortunate than ourselves. This is what Islam means to me.

And at this time of year, more than ever, I try to live by these ideals. That’s why I deliver food parcels from Darjeeling Express during this holy month to people across London. And why I have decided to donate all of my profits from my restaurant to Islamic Relief UK.

I have seen for myself what this support means, and it gives my life meaning to know that I can help save and transform the lives of those who are most in need.

Asma Khan went to Jordan with the charity Islamic Relief UK. This year, the UK Government is matching £2m of donations to Islamic Relief UK’s Ramadan appeal, specifically for its life-saving work in Ethiopia. You can support the appeal here.