Good food as a gateway to learning a language 

Good food as a gateway to learning a language 

Set on a bustling estate in north Sheffield you could be forgiven for missing the entrance to The Furnival, a small community-based charity nestled in amongst high rise flats and shops with security mesh at windows, run by Julie D’souza Walsh. 

The Burngreave Ward is often viewed as a tough place to live and whilst it does have its struggles, much like many city suburbs, it also has much to be optimistic about. The support offered by the very small but mighty team at The Furnival is one such beacon of light. 

One key service offered by The Furnival alongside a toy library, kids play sessions, holiday clubs and more is a Creative English project where they use drama and interactive games to teach, predominantly women, English language. 

The community around The Furnival is very diverse, with a high concentration of newly arrived families from Somalia, Yemen, Sudan and Libya who speak little to no English, leaving many isolated or relying on their children. 

Not being able to speak English can be a huge burden on women in the area, they struggle in shops, attending the doctors and often feel lonely or isolated, however the formal class-based learning isn’t suitable for many Muslim women as they want to attend women-only sessions and they often have children at home. So, the Furnival began filling the gap around five years ago with local, small interactive drop-in sessions where the kids come too! 

Julie began to bake a cake for the end of the English sessions, with toddlers and young ones playing happily, the women were able to join together and share stories. Slowly and organically one of the women would bring a pastry or cake to share and conversations around food grew and grew. 

Spurred by a move to a new premises and at long-last a dedicated small community kitchen, the cooking took-off and as part of the Get Togethers Cook and Share Month at the end of every session a shared meal has been made by the women this autumn. 

“Every week a different lady will initiate the cooking” comments Julie “Five or six women will begin chopping and creating, depending on what food I have sourced and has been donated.” 

Julie reflects: “The cost-of-living crisis was starting to bite, and I wanted to harness the willingness not only to chat about food but share recipes from all our different cultures and backgrounds. All our meals are low-cost and veggie and I source the ingredients. Cook and Share Month is simple to explain to the women as it is just that – cooking something from your own archive and sharing it over a table. Being part of a national initiative gave it a different feel.” 

Today on the menu was a Libyan stew, cous cous and a Sudanese cake. 

“What is important to me is that the women feel at home here, don’t get me wrong it can be busy and hectic with 20 people in such a small space but there is a buzz and I don’t think before some of these women came they had experienced that feeling of having something in common with someone for a very long time.” 

She continued: “They also get a sense of pride; it might be that they shared a new skill or I can share some hints and tips on how to swap ingredients or use the slow cooker – we are all simply women and mothers when we meet.” 

Since the covid precautions have lifted we have been able to also access some Fare Share surplus, which we use in our Cook and Share lunches but also a lady took home some spinach and potatoes one week and the following week she told me all about the quiche and soup she had made her family.” 

Julie hopes to continue to share lunch after the sessions this winter, she feels it could be a vital warm hub in a cold winter, unsure as yet how to find the provisions one thing she is sure of is the benefit the project has. “To enable a woman to go into a supermarket and read the labels or go to her child’s school and understand more of what is going on is vital. Cooking supports integration and breaks down barriers – it is a leveller – we all want what is best for our families at the end of the day.” 

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