Soul Food Sisters

The social enterprise helping
 female migrants into work

Work. You might see it as a burdensome necessity or a source of great fulfilment (or maybe both), but most people take it as a given right. Unlike most, Algerian Djamila Siagh knows what it takes to earn that right.

She has spent 16 years since moving to the UK, taking care of her children while struggling to get a work permit, and then to find a job. Now she works as the volunteer co-ordinator at Soul Food Sisters, a small Glasgow-based social enterprise providing catering.

When she first got involved with the Sisters, back in 2014, it was as a volunteer. Reflecting on the past three years, Djamila said: "For me this was a big jump. From working as a kitchen assistant, then developing some IT and admin skills, and becoming a volunteer co-ordinator. And I fit it very well because of the contacts I gained through years of working with organisations."

She had been out of work since she moved to Glasgow from her home town in Algeria, in 2001, to stay at her husband's side.

Fluent in Arabic and French, with a degree in clinical psychology from the University of Algiers and five years of hospital work behind her, Djamila was keen to continue working in her new home in Scotland.

She took courses to improve her English, volunteered to create contacts, while at the same time raising three children. She had ambition and diligence to spare, but opportunities were sparse.

Until 2014, when she was invited to join the Sisters. With members from Poland, Spain, Peru, the company has a deep awareness of obstacles that migrant women face in Scottish society. Their aim is to bolster their employability potential by providing volunteer positions to develop necessary work skills.

It is the perfect environment for migrant women like Djamila to flourish. "Equality is our aim, and we are learning from each other in a friendly atmosphere. We come and we talk. We all know that we have to deliver something, but at the same time it's like a family," she says.

I didn’t have all the skills, but my colleagues trusted me and gave me this confidence. They said I could do it, they were sure I fitted the role,” Djamila adds.

The long-term struggle to get work has made Djamila acutely aware of the impact that unemployment has on the lives of immigrants. “For migrant women here, and migrants generally speaking, it’s really hard to (establish) contact. You don’t know anybody, so it’s not that easy to socialise unless you’ve got somebody who’s going to introduce you,” she says.

I feel lucky because I am doing the catering, I am involved in the community, and I know something about policies and people. I am in touch.”

Soul Food Sisters provides working conditions tailored to the needs of mothers. Djamila explains the family-friendly facet of the social enterprise: "We are all migrants, be it Western European or North Africans, and the reality is it isn't easy to access Scottish society. But having a childcare issue makes it even more complicated.

First, you cannot (afford to) pay for childcare, and second, you cannot work because you need to have flexible working hours. When you work nine to five, you cannot get your children from school or go for a doctor’s appointment."

For this reason, flexibility became a key component of Soul Food Sisters. Djamila describes how it looks in practice: “I am a mother of three, two are still in primary and one is in secondary school. First, I take my kids to school and then I start my job at 9.30am and I finish at 2.30pm. Sometimes I work weekends and I leave the kids with my husband, because most of the events we do catering for are on Saturday or Sunday.

It’s an atypical schedule made to accommodate family obligations, and it has proven a great solution for Djamila. The volunteer co-ordinator role has proven to be a reward and a challenge, and one that Djamila readily takes on.

I am still learning, to be honest. Soul Food Sisters gave me this big opportunity to be here and to learn.”

For more information on Soul Food Sisters, go here.

The above article by Marta Matvijev first published on in Mar, 2017.