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‘Employers took advantage of me as a refugee but sharing Syrian food helped me connect with new friends in London’

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When Omama Zankawan was in Syria, she dreamt of coming to London for years and years, and in 2018, that dream finally became true.

However, it was not all smooth sailing, as employers saw her as an asylum seeker they could take advantage of, and did not give her holidays or sick pay.

But eventually, Omama was able to get settled in London and found herself connecting with others around her by sharing her cuisine with friends, which she says stopped people ‘seeing her as an intruder’

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Omama Zankawan’s house was destroyed by bombing in 2012

Family’s home destroyed by bombs

After arriving in London as part of a scholarship programme, cooking became her passion and allowed her to share her culture with others.

Omama left her home country three years ago to come to London to study before she was then granted asylum in the UK.

Years earlier in 2012 Omama’s home had been completely destroyed by bombs, causing her family to move around many times in the years that followed.

Speaking to MyLondon, Omama said: “The revolution started in 2011 and in 2012 we had to escape our house because it was being bombed.

“There was a massacre in the neighbourhood next to ours, so we had to leave.

“One week after we left we learnt that our house was destroyed. So basically we had no house. We were moving from one house to another.

“Until I left in 2018 I’ve lived in 10 houses, in 10 different areas.”

Omama, who now lives in Chiswick, West London, had always dreamed of coming to London.

“I came here to study public health, but then applied for asylum because the security forces in Syria were asking questions why I am in Britain, and I was scared to go back,” she said.

Employer threatened to fire her at any time because she was a refugee

But the struggle did not end when Omama arrived in the UK as she found herself being taken advantage of.

After the scholarship programme ended, she needed to find a job to earn money.

She said: “I had depression because I was very lonely as I wasn’t going out at all. I was really worried, and one of my friends really helped me to get out of this state.

“It lasted for almost a year, and I wasn’t comfortable with my job because I didn’t have a contract and the shop owner was not very nice.

“He kept referring to me as an asylum seeker and saying that he could fire me at any time and that he was doing me a favour by letting me work because I wouldn’t find anyone else that would let me work.

“It was all adding to my anxiety because I didn’t know my rights.

“I didn’t know that I should ask for a contract, or holiday, or for sick pay.

“I never took a day off for a year because I didn’t know that I was entitled to do that.

“It’s really important that people know their rights.”

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After leaving her job Omama found a new role where she now works as an employability advisor in the work and health programme, helping people with health conditions that are long-term unemployed to overcome their barriers.

Sharing her cuisine with friends stopped people ‘seeing her as an intruder’

When Omama arrived in the UK for her studies she spent time exploring the country, and also “exploring the food and different cuisines”.

The 31-year-old explained how through sharing Syrian dishes and trying traditional British food she has managed to connect with different cultures.

“I hadn’t cooked before I came to London. I had never been in the kitchen, but when I came here I had to cook because I couldn’t live on fast food forever,” she said.

“My mum was sending me voice notes of what to do.

“My food was good, really delicious. I was really passionate about cooking and trying out different dishes.”

Last year during the lockdown Omama started a recipe swap with her friend, Alby Earley, where every fortnight they would send a recipe for the other to try.

“I was really depressed and he told me how about we do a challenge, you give me a recipe and I give you a recipe,” she said.

“I was giving him Syrian recipes and he aced it. He was giving me British and French, and it was a completely different type of food than I’m used to.”

“My flatmates are British and I like to cook big meals and share it with them and they love that, and they share their food with me as well,” she said. “It’s been a passion for me to cook and share recipes.

“Everyone likes food and it’s a good way to talk about your country. It reminds people that you are a person, you have the same interests, you both like food and you always find a lot of similarities in cultures.

“For example, there’s a lot of similarities in Syrian and Polish food.”

She explained that through food people are able to recognise similarities between those from a different culture, saying: “They stop looking at you as an intruder and see you as a friend or a person.”

“Refugees are people, human beings like anybody else,” she added.

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Speaking of her “love” for London, Omama explained how the diversity of the city made it “easier to blend in”.

She said: “My mindset and my way of thinking changed a lot since I came here, because I’m exposed to various cultures and backgrounds.

“Most of the people are international, so the diversity was amazing.

“That was an interesting experience for me to meet all these people. Because in Syria you only have Syrians, you rarely meet anybody else.

“It was much easier to blend in than if I’d studied in a different city where they have less diversity, it wouldn’t be the same experience because I would feel like I’m alone or different, but I never felt different here.”

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https://www.mylondon.news/news/west-london-news/employers-took-advantage-refugee-sharing-21861640