The Melville High students in Hamilton were required to plan an event as part of their food technology course. The class looked for an opportunity or need within their community and brainstormed a number of ideas before deciding they’d like to do something with people from refugee backgrounds.

They were partly inspired by the fact that some of the students had family members who had arrived in New Zealand as refugees.

“We decided to hold cooking classes with them because food is a common interest and we thought it would make it comfortable and facilitate conversations,” says Keeshon.

Their teacher, Coralie Stoner, was initially a little surprised by the idea they came up with.

“I assumed they would go for the easier option of working with kids within the school,” she says. “I was a bit blown away and impressed with what they came up with.”

Coralie contacted Red Cross in Hamilton and was put in touch with a group of Colombian women who lived nearby and had children at the school.

They organised for the group to come along to the after school cooking classes on a semi-regular basis. The group prepared and shared meals with the year 13 students while teaching them about Colombian culture and the country’s refugee situation.

Kiwi cooking classes

The cooking group was entirely the students initiative. They’d choose the recipes and translate them into Spanish, check what ingredients they needed, and draw up the shopping lists.

The recipes they chose were based around classic Kiwi dishes and included: pavlova, lamb roast, cottage pie, ANZAC biscuits, pikelets, and hokey pokey.

Claudia was one of the Colombian women who went to many of the cooking classes. She’s been in New Zealand for over two years but found that many of the recipes were new to her.

“I enjoyed practicing a different kind of cooking,” she says, “especially dishes like the pavlova which was totally new.”

The students learned a few interesting cooking styles from the Colombians too.

“Their cooking methods are different to what we’re used to, one time they used a plastic bag in a cooking pot which really confused us at first, but it still tasted nice,” says Natasha.

Cultural exchanges

The classes weren’t all about cooking. The students also took away a few lessons about refugee resettlement in New Zealand.

They heard first-hand accounts of the difficulties former refugees can face settling into a new country. It allowed the class to put themselves in the shoes of their Colombian friends and build an understanding of what it means to be a refugee.

“We built a good friendship and learned a lot about their culture and background stories,” says Rachel.

“It was good to communicate with people who have been through something similar to what my parents did,” says another student, Natalie, whose parents arrived in New Zealand as refugees. “It was also nice to cook Kiwi food and learn about that because it was quite new to me too”

Coralie would like to see one of her future classes continue with a similar idea but says it needs to be student driven.

“If the students don’t buy into it I don’t think it would work,” she says. “It was these students idea and they made it happen.”