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As a Lebanese refugee, cooking has become my lifeline and my community

When I’m eating delicious Lebanese food with my cookery class students, I can forget about all the pain. I feel loved. As a Lebanese chef currently in the UK, I know that sharing food is what makes us human.

There has been a long road between my old life in Lebanon and teaching cookery students in the UK. I was shot twice by a member of the Shia opposition during the internal conflict which broke out in Lebanon between the Sunni and Shia Muslims, and it left me paralysed for life. Through all the pain and uncertainty, cooking has become my lifeline here in the UK.

I was 24 years old the day I became paralysed. I was on my way to work a night shift. I was just opening my car when a man pointed a gun at me. I put my hands in the air and said, “I’m Ahmed Sinno and I work for the Red Cross, please don’t shoot me.” Then I fainted. I woke up in the hospital. When I pulled the hairs on my thighs, I couldn’t feel them. That’s when I realised the shooting had paralysed me.

I should never have left my house that night. We had heard warnings of the attack, but I was determined to get to work because I knew the Red Cross needed me. Also I should never have told the gunman my full name: Sinno is the name of one of the seven biggest families that support the prime minister and the Sunni regime. In case you don’t know — the Shia Muslims want to take the power from the Sunni Muslims.

Eight years later, in 2016, I encountered a roadblock manned by the same gunman who had shot me. Later that day I was followed and shot at by a gunman on a motorbike. Following advice from state intelligence services who believed I was being targeted, I fled the country, leaving behind my fiancée and my job. I’ve been in the UK since 2016.

It’s been really hard. I loved my life in Lebanon. My fiancée has now gotten married to someone else. The second shooting happened in May 2016. I was going to get married to her that July, but I had to leave before then. I’ve lost everything. Back in Lebanon I had a very senior position and a good salary.

I just really hope the Home Office will accept my refugee status soon. As an asylum seeker I can’t work. I have no reason to wake up early. The only thing that keeps me going is my cookery classes — they give me something to plan for. I was shot right on the nerve in my back so I am always in a lot of pain. But when I’m cooking I don’t feel my pain anymore. It’s therapy for me.

I also love that in my classes I am referred to as the Lebanese chef, rather than the refugee. This title has brought me dignity and helped me to keep believing in myself. What’s more, food has an incredibly ability to take me home. My mother used to make me these delicious cheese rolls for breakfast in Lebanon on special occasions. Every time I teach one of my students to make one of these rolls, it takes me back to those happy mornings with her.

When I arrived in the UK, I didn’t know anyone. I felt so lonely. But when I joined Migrateful everything changed. They are my family now. A few months back the Home Office was threatening to evict me from my current housing, they wanted to leave me homeless. I rang up Jess Thompson, the Migrateful founder, and told her what was happening. She said, “No one in the Migrateful family will ever be homeless, I will find somewhere for you to live.” It made me cry because I knew I was going to be ok.

It’s my 37th birthday next month. I just have one wish, the same wish I’ve had for the last four years, ever since my exile started here in the UK.

I wish to live my life, like any normal human being, without the fear of being deported back to Lebanon, or the fear of being killed. That’s what I think about every night before I go to sleep.

Ahmed Sinno is a Lebanese chef for Migrateful: a social enterprise where asylum seekers and refugees teach their traditional cuisines to paying customers

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