Iraqi refugee Fadhl Alhabib on leaving home and cooking for a crowd

By Seren Morris

Fadhl Alhabib learned to cook for large groups of people during his time living in the Calais ‘Jungle’. Photography by Seren Morris.

Fadhl Alhabib learned to cook for large groups of people during his time living in the Calais ‘Jungle’. Photography by Seren Morris.

“Please get your flatmates, I want everyone to eat,” Fadhl tells me. “Our culture is everyone eating together.”

There is no question of whether there will be enough. Fadhl Alhabib, 24, has made us an Iraqi feast: shakshuka, faswlya (red beans), spinach, rice and khobez bread.

The dishes are spicy, salty (he tells us that British people don’t use enough salt) and satisfying. There are three different dishes on our table that could be eaten individually, but they complement each other well.

The shakshuka, with eggs scrambled rather than baked,  red beans mashed up with onion and mixed into a tomato sauce, and finally, a warming spinach dish. Each cooked with seven spice, the flavours combine well, but with a mix of textures, each is exciting in its own right.

It is difficult choosing a favourite. Though very filling, we can’t help but go back for seconds. And thirds. In fact, Fadhl has made enough for 15 of us rather than five.

“I like cooking for lots of people. Actually, I'm better with big meal than small meals,” he says. Cooking for a group is no challenge for Fadhl. While a refugee in Calais, he learned to cook while volunteering at the ‘Jungle’, where he helped make breakfast and lunch for more than 300 people each day.

Originally from Iraq, Fadhl came to the UK almost two years ago via France, where he lived for 13 months. He volunteered with the Care4Calais charity to help feed the camp’s hundreds of refugees, cooking dishes like the ones we were eating; dishes that are easy to make in large batches.

Fadhl learned how to cook for big groups during his time in the Calais ‘Jungle’. Photography by Seren Morris.

Fadhl learned how to cook for big groups during his time in the Calais ‘Jungle’. Photography by Seren Morris.

Eventually, Fadhl paid a smuggler £4,500 to get him to the UK, in the back of a lorry. Fadhl said: “It was a fridge lorry of apples. Green apples. I ate them.

“I had a sleeping bag, I was in there for 22 hours. That was the last time I ate a green apple.”

Forced to flee

Considering everything Fadhl has experienced, he speaks candidly of his journey, with humour and light heartedness. He looks back at his time in Dhi Qar, southern Iraq, fondly, even though he had to leave, and for now, cannot go back. So what made Fadhl leave his home, and his family, for the UK?

“I got two shots in my stomach and my father got shot, my uncle, too. That's why I decided to leave Iraq. The militia shot me and my father; we were in the car. That's a bad memory. I thought my father was dead, he didn't move.”

After this incident and fearing for his safety, Fadhl left his life behind: “I left everything, my family, my university. I was studying business law, now I can't because of my English.”

Forced to drop out of university after his first year, he hopes to return to education in the UK. But for now, Fadhl works in a supermarket five days a week, and takes English classes one day a week.

As for his family, things have been difficult since he left: “My father is upset with me. He wanted me to stay close to him. I told him I can't come back.”

As an Iraqi refugee, granted asylum in the UK, Fadhl cannot go home to visit his family. They stay in touch via WhatsApp, but they don’t talk much.

Rebuilding a life

Despite these difficulties, Fadhl is making the most of his time in the UK. Fadhl hopes to start a catering business with his Syrian friend, making Middle Eastern food for parties. Food that can be made in huge batches, enough to feed 300 without compromising on flavour. Dishes like tepsi baytinjan, margat albamiya and kubba bil burghur, with plenty of tumeric rice and khobez bread to soak up the sauces.

“What do you think?” He asks us, “Is it a good idea?” Between mouthfuls of moreish food, we unanimously agree, yes, that is definitely a good idea.

Fadhl plans to bring the business to fruition in the next year, and hopes to stay in London for as long as he can: “I love the UK, but especially London. If you have one chance somewhere else, you have ten chances here.”

Shakshuka is a traditional Middle Eastern recipe of scrambled eggs poached in a tomato stew. Photography by Seren Morris.

Shakshuka is a traditional Middle Eastern recipe of scrambled eggs poached in a tomato stew. Photography by Seren Morris.