Don’t despair, organise!: Reading Red Kitchen

Mutual aid in Reading

Like many homeless people during the lockdown, asylum-seeking migrants are being bundled into cramped hotels. With their asylum allowance confiscated, they rely on 2 x plain pasta meals and weird small shampoo sachets. Mums can’t buy nappies. People can’t buy pants. The food is horrendous. They are bored, depressed and have no autonomy. There’s blatant exploitation of migrants in the hotels, bed bugs, mental and physical health issues. Some come from Calais, traumatised, some from detention centres – some are just bundled into 1am taxis into an endless chain of temporary accommodation. The hotels are owned by a conglomerate, who charge the state for the stay. Megabucks! They’re run by Clearsprings, a G4S type deal, who charge the state for migrants’ care. Megabucks! We can all safely assume the state are clearly making a lot of money off this system.

You might not benefit from the glorious alliteration of Reading Red Kitchen, but that shouldn’t stop you from forming a grassroots Refugee kitchen today. I can guarantee there are asylum-seeking migrants nearby in urgent need of your help – not only for food and clothes, but to protect them from the Far-Right hotel-invasions too.

Reading Red Kitchen is a solidarity project that feeds 30-50 migrants with hot nutritious food every single day. We also offer new toiletries and underwear, clothes and shoes, electronic devices when we can, and luggage. Every week different people in the community sort out English lessons, walks, sports clubs and more, too. We get 0 funding, have existed for 5 months and were formed out of a socialist boxing club. Only on Freedom does that sound believable.

So what can you do, sitting on your sofa dead-scrolling on your phone? Start a kitchen of course!

Serious structure

I’ll keep my casual crusty-anarchist bashing for another day, but this is serious business. You will desperately need the support of religious groups and all kinds of people, so keep the “religion is stupid” t-shirt at home. This project will be far-reaching, you will have the support of all kinds of people, and supporting all kinds of people.

We have a collective of 7 goons, or, co-ordinators. We’re responsible for money stuff, escalating health and immigration support cases to a proper local charity, managing social media and donations call-outs and all that core stuff. We are accountable.

We then stick out a WhatsApp rota and a bunch of other folks say which days they can cook meals or come and help sort clothes/serve food. We’ve built strong contacts with restaurants, churches, mosques, Gurdwaras, all who either help pay for meals or give us locations, donations and access to their networks. We’d be screwed without them.

Get a proper rota, get dedicated chats for volunteers, donation call outs (keep this chat one-way, announcements only, or people will leave en masse), find local FB groups of mutual aid, refugee support and utilize them!

Getting people what they need

The needs will differ from city to city, but socialising aside (very important), getting the items folks need is crucial. When people first arrive, we always give them a starter pack with: underwear, a change of clothes and toiletries. Our next priority is to get them a phone (who knows when they last spoke to someone at home). We can also offer them more items but to access any extra donations we ask them to make a request, which we then put out and source via the WhatsApp groups.

Don’t accept any and all donations, check them via pics first or you’ll become a dumping ground. Don’t over-promise Samsung tablets – build a hierarchy of need to be sustainable.

Ours is:

Baby items/food/hot food > underwear and toiletries > clothes and shoes > electronic devices > luggage > phone credit once a month > activities 

The toppest tip though is get a smartphone to be your hub:

  • All of you can use Google translate to communicate
  • You can do Broadcasts on WhatsApp (not group chats which is awful data protection and don’t allow service users to talk to you privately)
  • You can share the workload by sharing the phone in your core collective
  • You can manage expectations via WhatsApp instead of long discussions disrupting food service, for example

Starter-packs aside, we ask our migrant friends to WhatsApp their requests and then we record them in a sheet. That way we can pack and prepare items on non-donation days (food every day, donations 3 days), ensure no one’s being left out and we’re evenly distributing items, and see gaps in our stock which we can use for donation callouts.

Exploitation is a massive issue. We’ve had instances of hotel staff exploiting women and visible anti-Blackness from both fellow migrants and hotel staff. Building consistent relationships and manning a hub phone which gives migrants a direct and private line to talk, keeping donations and distribution very open and fair, helps combat this massively.

Another thing our migrant friends need is stimulation. The hotel is so depressing and they have no allowance to pay for any activities. They’re moved so randomly it’s difficult to make friends. We do boxing classes (of course), but just chill and easy to organise stuff like English practice sessions, walks and gardening are super popular.

Far-Right threat

While Paul Goulding’s red plasticine face makes the papers again, other losers like Vinnie Sullivan and Nigel Farage are also storming these hotels to ‘expose’ the ‘cushty’ situation. We, despite supporting a homeless food service for a year, get a lot of heckling from white homeless people. The Hub phone will be crucial to folks l

etting you know they’re in danger. They are very reluctant to call the police, as cops are regularly used as a threat when migrants argue back against the care they’re given – one migrant woman told me the hotel staff threatened to call the police on her because she insisted that she needed baby food, not plain rice, for her 11mth old. Be realistic and vigilant, work with your local antifascist group, and let’s create a network of grassroots migrant support together. We stay in touch with all migrants who move on from our town via our hub phone, and try to find them local support to wherever they are now – that could soon be your group. We’ve already worked with comrades in Camden, sharing our structures and templates to get their own kitchen going. If you want us to run a mini-training for you, give us a DM on FB.

~Desert Worm

Images by Reading Red Kitchen and Reading Red Corner