‘Cooking was a right that was taken away from us’

Health Hero: Mavis Ubuntu helps run a kitchen in Dublin where asylum seekers can prepare meals

Physical and mental health go hand in hand. When one suffers, so too does the other. So, being denied the very basics of homemaking can have a very negative effect because cooking is one of the most fundamental cornerstones of all of our lives.

There are more than 5,000 people living in direct provision in Ireland. Set up in 2000 for asylum seekers to be temporarily housed, many have been living in limbo for many years – far longer than the initially recommended six months.

The average amount of time for a person or family to be living in direct provision is 23 months and, while the accommodation and food provided is undoubtedly a necessary and welcome service, many of those housed within the 34 centres across the country do not have the facility to cook for their families.

Mother-of-one Mavis Ubuntu, who is originally from South Africa, has lived in Ireland for two years and is one of the many asylum seekers who have helped to establish and run a kitchen in Jigsaw, a social centre close to Mountjoy Square in Dublin, where those waiting for the rest of their lives to begin can at least prepare a simple meal.


We spoke to this health hero, who describes herself as an activist and community organiser with Cooking for Freedom and volunteer at the Royal Hospital in Donnybrook, about why cooking is so important for health reasons and what she thinks of her adopted country.

1) What is your proudest achievement?

My proudest moment was being granted a safety order after years of being in an abusive relationship – having the strength and courage to put an end to it and proceed with life.

2) What motivates you in your work and life?

I feel motivated by making a difference in people’s lives, being involved in creating communities and fostering a connection with other people. My fellow Cooking for Freedom members are a group of asylum seekers who love to cook. In doing this we feel purpose and get pleasure. It also helps us to nourish our loved ones and ourselves – not only physically but soulfully too. It is joyful. Up until last December when we started, we – being asylum seekers – had not had any access to cooking facilities. This was really very tough and left a huge void in our days. So we set up this group and found a location with a kitchen where we could cook a few times a week for our families. We cook delicious dishes from our home countries and have them throughout the week and we are supported by people using a Patreon donation page.

Cooking was a right that was taken away from us – so it means a lot to be able to cook now. It’s like self-empowerment to us. The project lets us build relationships with one another where we get to meet. It’s also very good for our mental health. It’s such a pleasure standing above those pots, putting in those ingredients and to know at the end of the day you are eating what you have prepared for yourself.

3) What do you do to keep mind and body healthy and well?

As well as cooking, I keep well by walking, praying, being around friends, educating and creating awareness about the asylum system in Ireland.

4) What are the most important factors to maintain a healthy society?

I think connections between people and strong, supportive communities are very important. Sometimes you feel sad but, when you see your friends, you feel better and sometimes, when you don’t feel motivated, a friend can encourage you, they can even direct you in life.

5) What needs to be done in Ireland to achieve this?

I think there should be more investment in recreational facilities as it’s important that people have access to affordable community spaces and facilities where they can come together.

6) What do you think is the most pressing health issue in Ireland today?

Reproductive justice and rights are very important issues – access to safe, legal, free abortion and healthcare for all people who can get pregnant. Also as asylum seekers, a health issue that affects many of us is the lack of access to healthy nutritious food in the system of direct provision. In most centres people are not allowed to cook for themselves – instead, they are being given unhealthy food in a canteen, such as chips and very few vegetables or fruit. I believe everyone should have access to healthy nutritious food and be able to cook and share dishes from their own culture. Taking away that right negatively affects their physical and mental health.

7) How do you think the Minister for Health needs to tackle this?

He supported the call to repeal the Eighth, so that is good. But also asylum seekers should be allowed to cook and he could support this call by us and listen to what we have to say.

8) What do you do to relax and unwind?

I relax through sleep by taking naps now and again and I also practice meditation, which helps a lot. Aside from that I like having dinner with friends and spending time with my daughter in the park. And praying relaxes me.

9) What makes you laugh?

My daughter, who is 7 years old, makes me laugh. And I like being silly with kids and friends – it’s great to be silly sometimes.

10) Where would you like to live other than Ireland and why?

Ireland is the best place for me now. I have friends and people who are there for me. And I think people have more time for you here. Ireland is home and I can’t imagine being anywhere else.

Our Health Heroes
1 - Martin Nevin: Even unwashed and medicated up to my eyes, Martin makes me feel beautiful
2 - Maureen Durcan: That so many live on the poverty line in Ireland is incredibly sad
3 - John Burke: Managing mental health should not be like climbing a mountain
4 - Derek Devoy: The Kilkenny taxi man whose drive saves lives
5 - Sarah Fitzgibbon: Society has to stop treating the marginalised and disabled as charity cases
6 - Kathleen King: I wanted to make sure no one else would have to wait nine years for a diagnosis
7 - Caoimhe Bennett: The schoolgirl raising understanding about young carers
8 - Ann Norton: Our hospitals are a disgrace. We are letting down our doctors, nurses and whole society
9 - Una McNicholas: My proudest achievement is being able to help care for my sister
10 - Catherine Cox: Family carers are a hidden army of exceptional people fulfilling a role they did not ask for
11 - Prof Rose Anne Kenny: Good friendships make for a healthy life as much as regular exercise and healthy diet
12 - Dr Robert O'Connor: Within my lifetime we could eradicate cervical cancer with the HPV vaccine and screening
13 - Claire Cahill and Michelle Long: Scoliosis campaigners battling to reduce waiting times for children
14 - Prof Donal O'Shea: The shocking fact is that most ill-health now comes from our lifestyle
15 - Nuala Geraghty: Every time we place a dog, it's like giving new life to each family