The Migrateful Chef

Written by Emily Leeming
March 26, 2019

Betty Agbons is an undocumented migrant from Nigeria who arrived in the UK at 16, alone, with one saucepan in her bag and some big dreams. In the past year she’s been cooking with Migrateful, a London-based social enterprise that supports asylum seekers, refugees and migrant cooks to run their own cooking classes.

‘I came here with these possibilities and dreams, because when you’re from Africa they don’t show us Peckham, or Brixton or Woolwich on the TV. They show us Oxford Circus and London Bridge, everyone going to work in their suits and their briefcases looking serious. I thought I couldn’t wait to get to London and wear a suit, but when I got here it was a different story.’ Betty is a 35-year old Nigerian migrant who has been living in the UK for nearly 10 years now. She arrived here at 16 completely alone with the promise of an Aunt here putting her up and supporting her through school. Everything looked rosy. But within a couple of months her Aunt kicked her out and took the papers that Betty desperately needed for asylum. ‘She took everything.’

Life as an undocumented migrant

After that Betty lived everywhere; some good, some bad. ‘People take advantage when they know you don’t have your papers; landlords and things like that. I can’t remember how many places and all those days. I don’t mind talking about my story to let people know it’s okay – it wasn’t your fault. You were a child. I don’t see myself as a victim no more, I see myself as a survivor. I was sixteen, I was young, I trusted everything. And yes of course I was dumb or so at some stage. But I was a child.’ Betty’s voice cracks. ‘I was just 16….you know I didn’t even realise I was different until I came to this country. When I got here I was like oh shit, I am different. Sometimes no-one wants to sit near me on the bus, or you walk close to someone and they hold their bag close. It was the first thing that really got to me when I got here… I just couldn’t understand why I’m being treated like this.’ 

A few years ago Betty suffered the loss of her beloved father (her mother died when she was young) back in Nigeria and found it devastating not being able to go home to pay her respects - to say goodbye. While completely distressed by his passing, she was diagnosed with Cushing’s syndrome. She then spent two months in hospital recovering from two major surgeries with little support. 

A survivor

‘A couple of years ago I was all emotional, depressed and blah blah blah with all these things. But I'm over that now. I’ve had therapy. I used to think it was for crazy people until I had my first session and she asked me just one question, and I just cried. I didn’t even know I had all this emotion. Afterwards it was like a weight off my shoulders. So after I’ve gone through all that I don’t see myself anymore like a victim. I think I’m a survivor. I think I’m in a good place now, looking forward to the future. And Migrateful has been really, really helpful giving me the chance of seeing the possibility that yes, I can do this.


Migrateful is a social enterprise started in 2017 by Jess Thompson that supports asylum seekers, refugees and migrant cooks to run their own cooking classes. Jess used to work at the charity Housing Justice, but now runs Migrateful full time. I met Betty at one of their weekly training days in a church in Elephant and Castle that Migrateful holds each Tuesday. It’s a hub-bub of activity, laughter amongst friends and shy smiles. The leading chef du jour – An Ecuadorian mum with two teeny tots in tow - piles fresh whole mint stalks into a simmering beef stew. Zesty fragrances waft around the room. A volunteer transcribes her recipe, checking amounts with the chef with Cubans, Iranians, Albanians and Ethiopians peering over each other’s shoulders to watch. Betty explains to me that everyone seems to use the same main ingredients when they cook, no matter where they are from. Yet everyone has their own unique national twist.

'You have a fantastic meeting of all these different people, I call it our little United Nation because you’ve got all these variety of people united around food. It becomes like a little community. And when I’m cooking the food, that’s a happy memory for me [of Nigeria]. And the kind of feelings I get like when I finished doing a cooking class and I'm sitting there and you can see everybody just ‘being’, I really love that feeling - like this feels like Christmas. And here everybody’s the same. Nobody looks at you in a different way. Like the other day, this lady said to me, oh my God I just want to be free. She didn’t have to say much. I understood exactly what she meant. They understand.

Migrateful’s mission is to empower and celebrate refugees and vulnerable migrants on their journey to integration by supporting them to run their own cookery classes. You can support their work by donating or booking a cooking class

Update: Just before publishing this article Betty’s immigration claim was finally approved after 19 years!

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