When Greek immigrant Maria Marouli was living in New York in the ’70s, she had few opportunities. Her English was basic and her children had left home. She wanted to use her culinary skills and open a bakery, but her husband wouldn't allow it. Instead, she became a nanny.
Nikandre Kopcke is the girl Marouli helped to raise, and is now her goddaughter. When she grew up, she moved to London to pursue a Masters in Gender, Development and Globalisation. While there, Kopcke volunteered in community kitchens alongside migrant women who shared her godmother's dream of opening businesses dedicated to their native cuisines. There in London, Mazi Mas was born.
Meaning "with us" in Greek, Mazi Mas is a social enterprise working with migrant and refugee women to create pop-up restaurants. The events showcase the skills of participants, while providing potential pathways to future employment.
From London the concept spread to Sydney, which is where Amnesty International Community Organiser Nicole Donnelly heard about it. Inspired, she contacted the program managers about bringing Mazi Mas to Adelaide and immediately began working to make it a reality.
"That was late last year," Donnelly says. “It's been quite a long process because we had a fundraising dinner in June to be able to actually start the organisation, and then we had to build relationships with partner organisations, meet, get to know and train the women."
One of those partner organisations is the Australian Refugee Association, which has put Donnelly in contact with the first group of participants. They've since worked on the menu for a three-course Eritrean feast with the other co-ordinators of Mazi Mas Adelaide, including Fatema Ayubi from Shirni Parwana and Rhiannon Mercurio, head chef at The Deli in Thebarton.
The result is a spread of stews and spiced vegetable dishes with plenty of injera, the ubiquitous East African sourdough pancake, to scoop them up. A dessert that reflects the Italian influence on Eritrean cuisine will be followed by a traditional coffee ceremony after the dinner. The communal setting will give the women responsible for the meal a chance to mingle with guests throughout the evening.
These events are about more than simply developing skills; they’re about creating communities and breaking down the barriers that so often restrict and isolate migrant women. "You find a lot of women refugees and asylum seekers have children who go off to school, their husbands go off to work and they're stuck at home," says Donnelly.
She recalls speaking to one participant who didn't leave her house for six months after arriving in Australia. Now the woman is part of the team. "They're all very, very loud and just amazing strong women who have been through some horrific experiences that I couldn't even fathom, but who have this fantastic sense of life and happiness."
Plans are afoot for the next dinner at the end of November, which will highlight a different cuisine to be decided by the women involved in that project. Beyond that, there is interest in a catering branch to provide more regular income for participants and things don't stop there.
"We're also hoping to get a grant for those women who are really interested in cooking and starting up their own business, to pay for them to go on to do a short TAFE course to give them the skills. I also hope that in the future I'll be able to train one of the women and work closely with them to do the project management, to run the dinners, to do what I'm doing basically. That's the long-term dream of Mazi Mas."