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Faith, hope and loaves

With the support of a group of churches, a bakery is providing training to refugees and supplying sourdough bread to the people of Coventry, reports Philip Halcrow

They want to make a new life for themselves and their children

TIMERS are going off left, right and centre in the kitchen. Whenever an alarm sounds, the bakers look left, right and centre, trying to identify which task they are being summoned to – whether it is to take some bread out of the oven or check a dough that has been left to rise. There are a lot of tasks to carry out, because today, in their base at St Catherine’s Church, Coventry, the small team at Proof Bakery need to make not only red chia and multiseed loaves but also more than 100 pittas and pizzas.

Two of the pizza toppings carry flavours of the Middle East – the kinds of ingredients that one of the bakers in the kitchen would use when she was still living in Syria, before she fled and arrived in the UK.

Proof Bakery trains and hires refugees.

In between tasks in the kitchen, founder Chernise Neo explains what gave rise to the bakery.

‘I grew up in Singapore and Hong Kong, and my family love food,’ she says. ‘Pretty much all of my grandparents’ generation have run food businesses of one sort or another, so it runs in my family.

‘I came to Coventry to study at Warwick University, and I’ve stayed in the city. I worked for my church for a while and then started a fundraising consultancy, but once it was established I thought it was time for something new.

‘Then late last year I was asked to run a bread-making workshop for some women in the supported housing at Coventry Refugee and Migrant Centre. I noticed that, although lots of them couldn’t speak any English, there was a kind of companionableness when we were making bread together. I would show them how I shaped my dough, and they would show me how they were used to shaping theirs. It was great because, even though they were in a totally new context, there were aspects of bread-making that were familiar to them. In many cases it was something they’d been doing since they were children.

‘I started to wonder whether there was something more I could do with the idea. I thought about how these women come to this country, how they want to get off benefits, are desperate to work and want to make a new life for themselves and their children. I wondered how I could facilitate that with some of the skills they already have.’

Chernise and a helper ran a pilot scheme.

‘We brought a couple of women into this kitchen and each week taught them how to make bread. Then we asked family and friends whether they wanted the bread. And people bought it. That gave us the confidence to go ahead with the concept.’

Now Proof Bakery offers a variety of breads to people who take out subscriptions.

‘We didn’t want to have a shop and the overheads associated with it right away, but we’ve tried to make buying the bread as simple as possible,’ says Chernise. ‘Anyone can pick from our flavours and buy a subscription. The loaf is then delivered to a collection point of the customer’s choice. At the moment, we have five churches, two cafés and a workplace that serve as collection points.’

Churches have been a key ingredient in the making of Proof Bakery. Chernise’s contacts, which she had built up through her church work and through her fundraising consultancy, helped her find St Catherine’s. Its vicar was keen to use the church’s buildings as a hub for social mission.

‘Even though St Catherine’s is not the church where I worship, the people here have been very supportive of what we’re doing,’ Chernise says.

‘There has been a core group of churches in the city who have got this whole project up and running. We’ve done lots of tastings in churches, and people have sampled the bread and signed up on the spot for a subscription.

‘As we’ve gone around, speaking to church leaders, there has been such an appetite to help. Coventry is a major area of dispersal for refugees – it has taken the most Syrian refugees of any city in the UK. Most people have seen the refugee crisis in the news, but they don’t know what to do to help. If they’re not a social worker or an English language teacher, they may wonder whether they can do anything. We tell church leaders that members of their congregations can help by doing something as easy as buying bread.’

The breads that people have been buying include simple sourdough, multiseed sourdough and red chia loaves.

‘We’re mainly a sourdough bakery,’ says Chernise, ‘and we teach the process of making sourdough. We explain how a starter works – that is the combination of yeast and bacteria that rises and flavours the dough. We teach how to weigh and mix ingredients and how to shape loaves.’

Chernise and the other staff have even made use of the time when everyone is simply waiting for dough to rise. ‘We sit down and have lunch with the women and get to know each other,’ she says, ‘and we’ve had an adviser come from the National Careers Service to help the women with some basic IT skills. We’ve tried to use the proving time so that the women can learn about what makes a good baker and what they can do to make themselves more employable.’

Proof Bakery itself has begun to take on its trainees as employees.

Reflecting on the development of the trainees and the bakery, Chernise says: ‘As the course has gone on, the women have wanted to make – and there has also been the demand for – a wider variety of products. That’s how we started making pitta breads and pizzas. Now we also make sweets for an Arab café.

Written on a board in the kitchen, in the list of things to be made, are multiseed loaves, pittas, basbousa and za’atar and muhamara pizzas.

The trainee who has added some Syrian flavours to Proof Bakery’s repertoire says: ‘I’ve been learning about bread here – such as the multiseed bread and sourdough bread – but I’ve also been making some from my country.

‘At first, making sourdough was difficult, but then they helped me with knowing how you add the flour, how much time you mix it – and about grams. When I was baking in my country, I didn’t use grams.

‘I’ve enjoyed the friendship of Chernise, and talking with people here helps my English, because my English is not so good.’

The other trainee in the kitchen today, who arrived in the UK from Zimbabwe, also speaks appreciatively of her days in the bakery.

‘I’ve learnt everything about baking. Of course, I baked my own small things, like muffins, but I was never a serious baker.

‘I’ve enjoyed discovering that I can bake. I can measure volumes and quantities and I’ve learnt how to come up with a loaf of bread.’

But her enjoyment has not come solely from the skills she has learnt.

‘I’ve liked being with the other women,’ she says. ‘It is a nice environment to be in, interacting with people who are totally different. We all come from different backgrounds and cultures, but we took our time in learning, and Chernise has been patient with us.

‘It’s good company. I’m waiting for my status. I’m an asylum-seeker, so I’m not allowed to work until I get my papers sorted. I’m just hoping that I will get status maybe in the next few months.

‘When you’re here at the bakery, you’re occupied. It makes your day. It’s better than sitting around just worrying about your status.’

Chernise would like churches in other locations to replicate the Proof Bakery social enterprise. ‘We know from our experience that it takes a group of churches to get this up and running,’ she says. ‘Somebody has to provide the kitchen space – it doesn’t have to be free, but it has to be affordable – and members of a congregation have to decide that they’d like to buy the bread. The churches are important, because they are where the initial demand comes from.’

A tray of pittas comes out of the oven. There are more ready to go in. And more dough is ready to be shaped.

‘When bread is rising,’ says Chernise, ‘one of the words for it is “proving”. So when I named the project, I wanted to say something about bread, but also about the social mission of what we were doing. I wanted the name to show that women who have come to this country from somewhere else can use their skills, can contribute, can support their families.

‘Through everything we do at the bakery, we hope to prove that women can rebuild their lives.’

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