These Activists Set Up Roadside Kitchens for Europe’s Refugees

Food activism group No Border Kitchen serves thousands of meals to refugees every day, setting up in the street or squats. I join them in Lesbos, half a mile from the island’s ferry terminal.

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Jan 12 2016, 11:00am

Cooking for hundreds of people is a big enough challenge when you're working in a professional kitchen. Doing it on the front lines of Europe's refugee crisis adds another layer of difficulty.

Not that this fazes the No Border Kitchen crew. They set up on the street, in squats, and in the carriages of disused trains, serving thousands of meals to refugees every day, often under threat of eviction from the police and local authorities.

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Refugees in Lesbos eating meals provided by No Border Kitchen. All photos by Tom Whittaker.

On the Greek island of Lesbos, I find the kitchen at the side of a road about half a mile north of the island's ferry terminal. It's a cold afternoon in December and the crew has been here around six weeks. The camp is set up right next to the shoreline and every now and then, an overcrowded dinghy will land on the beach only metres away. Letters crafted from cardboard and tied to some railings spell out the words "REFUGEES WELCOME."

READ MORE: Dumpster Divers Are Bringing Food to This Migrant Camp in Calais

When I arrive, a confrontation is taking place between the kitchen crew and two men from the Forestry Service. The officials are concerned about some unauthorised tents pitched under the trees across from the kitchen.

One of them asks where we're from. "London," I reply, before turning to Lunte, who turns out to be one of the most experienced members of the kitchen crew. She sighs and looks at the official. "I told you, I am just a world citizen." The response does not go down well. "I think you do not respect anybody," the official says, before turning and walking away.

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No Border Kitchen has a tense relationship with the police and other official bodies. In Lesbos, the authorities have become increasingly concerned about the number of unregistered volunteers on the island. Lunte is unsympathetic.

"What is going on here is that the local authorities feel threatened by a kitchen crew that provides an information exchange for refugees," she says. "We try to give them dry clothes, food, water. Then they come and say this is forbidden."

The camp set-up gives an indication of the range of support No Border Kitchen provides. Crates of food are stacked on the pavement and covered with tarpaulin. Next to this sit three heavy gas cylinders fueling a stove, where a huge dreadlocked man is stirring a large pan.

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Across the road, pairs of shoes sit on a low wall drying in the sun so they can be reused. A van is plastered with maps of Europe, information on border crossings, and a sign reproduced in Arabic and Farsi that reads: "We cook here because we want to support you on your journey and we stand for a world without borders. The food is financed by donations. No one is illegal!"

Two Dutch kitchen volunteers Anne Gaglairdi and Micha Noordegraaf had been travelling through Europe for four months in their camper van when they heard about the crisis in Lesbos.

"It's based on having solidarity with refugees," says Noordegraaf. "We don't do the cooking and give food away. We all do the cooking. It's not charity. That really spoke to me."

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Gaglairdi tells me that the dreadlocked man behind the stove only arrived at the kitchen that morning. Originally from the Ivory Coast, he is on his way to the ferry port and stopped off for a few hours. Before long, he'd taken charge of the stove to cook up a recipe from home, picking up a bottle of vegetable oil and pouring the entire contents into the pan, then turning to the bemused kitchen crew and motioned for a second bottle.

Despite this unorthodox approach, or perhaps because of it, the resulting dish tastes incredible. A lentil base has been supplemented with tomatoes, spices, and other vegetables to create an expertly balanced stew. I turn to ask the chef about the recipe, but he's already gone to board a ferry to Athens and embark on the next leg of his journey to Europe.

When I return to the kitchen a few days later, I find a football game underway. Instead of jumpers for goalposts, there are life vests taken from the beach. Lunte assigns me a team and high-vis vests are handed out to differentiate between the sides. One player looks questioningly at the slogan scrawled across his vest. and Lunte does her best to explain, spelling out the numbers.

"1, 3, 1, 2," she says, laughing. "All Cops Are Bastards?" The young man looks at her, shrugs, then pulls on the vest.

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An American volunteer pulls on a vest and joins my side, taking over goalkeeping duties from an Afghan man in his 50s. Almost immediately, we concede a goal when the half-deflated ball is knocked easily past the new keeper. I exchange glances with the former goalie as he shakes his head and mockingly throws his hands up in despair. We burst out laughing as the American is swiftly relieved of his duties between the life vests.

READ MORE: What It's Like to Cook in a Syrian Refugee Camp

The players pause for a break and I sit down with Lunte. She tells me No Border Kitchen started with equipment provided by three German cooking crews and has since followed the refugee trail through Europe in reverse, travelling to Hungary and Slovenia before the crew parted ways.

Some went to Idomeni, a border town where tensions have risen between refugees and the police as thousands of people seek to cross from Greece to Macedonia. The others, including Lunte, came to Lesbos where more than 400,000 refugees have passed through in 2015.

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Lunte explains that there is a history of radical cooking in Germany, where kitchen crews join protests to support other activists. They have a saying, "Ohne mampf, kein kampf!" which Lunte translates as, "Without food, there's no struggle."

"For me, it has nothing to do with charity, it's taking one's responsibility. We are really privileged, we have everything we need but people in other parts of the world suffer from our wealthiness," she says. "You see a lot of people facing real problems and I feel that I'm in the position to support people."

No Border Kitchen may serve thousands of much needed meals daily but it's also a place where, if just for a few hours, it's possible to forget about being a refugee.

All photos by Tom Whittaker.