“Food is a window,” says Loretta Bolotin. “For us, it enables a really deep and often transformative and healing conversation with someone.”

Breaking bread for the sake of connection is the essence of Free to Feed, the social enterprise Bolotin co-founded with her husband Daniel Bolotin in 2015 to provide community, training and meaningful employment for refugees and asylum seekers.

“It’s also a really great way to hear someone’s story when they’re busy with their hands,” she adds. “That forward movement or busy-ness of doing something like cooking allows things to flow from the heart.”

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A former resettlement support worker, Bolotin started the empowering not-for-profit after hearing how isolated and lonely her clients felt after landing in Melbourne. “At the same time, they had so many amazing skills and experiences the rest of the community could benefit from,” she says. “But there wasn’t really an opportunity for us to connect firsthand with newly arrived migrants.

“I was so lucky having worked in that sector – I got invited to many Persian tea ceremonies and Afghan barbeques. I’d go visit a client and immediately be forced to sit down and enjoy a meal with them,” she laughs. “So I thought, ‘How can I bridge these worlds?’”

She started by reconnecting with clients, documenting their recipes and borrowing cafes after dark to host pop-up dinners. Cue colourful, fragrant plates of spicy Indonesian sambal; Persian doughnuts made with saffron and cardamom; Iraqi dolma (rice-stuffed vine leaves) slow-cooked in tomato; or warming Egyptian baked milk pudding.

“We knew it would be something the community would love, but not to the extent they did,” Bolotin says. “We were getting invitations across all of Melbourne.”

In 2021 the couple moved into a beautiful events space in Fitzroy North – with a fully equipped kitchen, large bar and homey dining area – expanding the team and stepping up their cooking classes, training programs, catered events and celebratory feasts.

Bolotin, whose parents migrated from southern Italy to Melbourne’s north (where they also ran a deli), observed from early on how food can be a point of connection and common ground.

“We’ll have a Greek attendee at an Iraqi class and they’ll find all these similarities – the way they were mothered or rolling dolmades as a kid. One of our instructors was telling me if you’re invited to someone’s house [in Iran] you have to eat all your food and then as a nicety you have to ask for more. That’s the same in Italian culture.”

One Free to Feed instructor, Hamed Allahyari, who fled Iran in 2012, went on to open Persian eatery Cafe Sunshine & Salamatea, which employs refugees and asylum seekers. He’s since published a cookbook with food writer Dani Valent and catered this year’s Australian Open.

“Seeing someone going from newly arrived, not knowing their place, to running a thriving restaurant and knowing exactly what their worth is [is so special],” Bolotin says. “We definitely hear from those we support that they grow in confidence, feel safer and feel like they’re part of the community.”

When asked what she’s gained in turn from the communities and individuals she’s met over the past nine years, Bolotin refers to the tattoo on her foot which says azadi (freedom) in Farsi.

“I got it as a reminder of the incredible privilege I have to live in this place that is quite free and to really honour that and use that to help and support others who haven’t had that,” she says. “For all our participants, that’s what’s driving them – to find better lives, to be free – free of war, free of hate, free of persecution. There’s something in their resilience and their quest for freedom that is an important note to self.

“I also learnt how to make baklava!”

This article first appeared in Domain Review, in partnership with Broadsheet.