Breaking down barriers through food

Monday, 21 February 2022

When the pandemic struck, Issaara Saeyim was starting a student placement at Corio’s Cloverdale Community Centre as part of her Diploma of Community Services. When her manager asked her to find a creative way to connect people, she felt the answer was obvious.

“I’m from Thailand and I love cooking, so I use food to connect people,” she says with a smile.

Every Thursday, Issara and a team of 10 volunteers come together to cook affordable Thai meals for the local community.

The menu usually consists of authentic red, green and massaman curries, as well as chicken stir fries that locals can order via the centre’s Facebook page and pick up through a window.

“We started out making 20 boxes at a time, but now we’re at 400 or 500 boxes, sometimes 600 boxes,” Issara says.

The volunteers come from various multicultural backgrounds and age groups, with the youngest aged 14 and the oldest being 83. Many of the women have experienced domestic violence.

Helping women who’ve experienced domestic violence is a particular passion for Issara, who came to Australia in 2013 on a partner visa before spending time in a women’s refuge in Melbourne.

“Family violence victims tend to have low self-esteem,” Issara says.

“They’re afraid to come to community centres because they find places run by government intimidating and worry that people won’t understand them.

“A lot of people are in this situation because they don’t have an education, they don’t know their rights, and have no family or support around them. They think they just have to work and send money home and don’t think about getting an education or help.”

Issara now holds the role of wellbeing facilitator at the centre, and uses food and cooking as a means to reach out to those in need.

“It is ice-breaking. The women tend not to want to go to support services initially, but they come here and we cook together, then they start to trust and open up. This gives them confidence to seek help.”

Issara describes her role as a “bridge to link them with support services.”

“We show them how to become independent, by teaching them English and things like the Australian road rules, the levels of governments, as well as history,” she says.

“When they’re here they feel a sense of belonging and they learn new skills, which lifts their mental health and quality of life. Then they want to give something back, so they come and volunteer and cook for the community.”

The program is called the Lotus Kitchen, which Issara says stands for “liberating ourselves together, united and strong”.

“The lotus flower is a survivor. It pushes its way through muddy waters and finds the sunlight.”

“We love spending Thursdays together and seeing people line up for our food. After we cook, we always share a meal together.”

Issara has turned her sights to her next project, a cleaning business to create opportunities for women to be independent in a safe working environment.

“I want to show them the right way – the legal way – of how people should be treated at work.”

As well as building other women’s confidence, the centre has helped Issara build her own.

“People told me I was too soft or not aggressive enough to advocate for people, but it’s not true.

“My manager helped me so much by believing in me and encouraging me.

“All of this was inside of me, but I was too scared to believe it. The team here has worked beside me and helped me with whatever I needed. It slowly helped me grow my confidence.

“You can create a good thing and change lives with your passion.

“I really love what I’m doing. I have the same amount of passion as when I walked in at the start."

The Cloverdale Community Centre is funded by the City through the Neighbourhood House Grant program. Visit Monday to Friday from 9am until 3.30pm and enjoy a wide range of social, educational, recreational and support activities.

For more info about the Lotus Kitchen meals, visit the Cloverdale Community Centre Facebook page.

Page last updated: Thursday, 19 May 2022