Several years ago, when it was safe for her to live in Iran, Mahshid Babzartabi ran a successful business in Tehran. Not long after that, she found herself on a small fishing boat with 81 other asylum seekers, having paid a people smuggler to get her to Australia.
“Every single moment we were threatening to drown,” she says. “We had two kids with us – my friend’s kids. Then in 2013 I landed in Darwin… I was 45 days in a detention centre.”
Babzartabi recalls her story in a matter-of-fact way, as if she’s told it a thousand times. In reality, she has. She tells it every time she runs a cooking class for Free to Feed, a social enterprise that runs classes taught exclusively by asylum seekers and refugees. Founded by community worker Loretta Bolotin and her husband Daniel Bolotin earlier this year, Free to Feed aims to create a cultural exchange between asylum seekers and the general public through conversation, learning and food.
Here at Grub Food Van, who have agreed to host tonight’s cooking class, students arrive while Babzartabi washes vegetables: eggplant, onion, tomato. Tonight, we’re making a Persian feast – but first, we listen to our teacher’s story. “The first two months in Melbourne were hell,” she says. “Even though I could speak English I was scared of everything… I didn’t even know how to catch a bus. So my caseworker recommended a volunteer job. I started volunteering at Darebin Council, helping to bring different cultures together. I made very beautiful friends there.”
We begin helping with the preparation: chopping vegetables, trying rich spices we’ve never seen before, and peeling eggplant that Babzartabi has smoked against the open flame of the stove. Iranian pop music plays softly, and the smell of the dishes we’re creating – buttery, sweet and spicy – fills the kitchen. “I had a good job [in Iran], and sometimes because I was so busy I had someone to cook for me!” she says, laughing. “[But] I’m a good cook too. I’m very thankful to God I have a job.”
As an asylum seeker it can take years to be granted working rights and permanent residency. Free to Feed found Babzartabi through her work organising events for asylum seekers, and once she had her working rights, she became one of the organisation’s first teachers.
By 8pm, the feast is ready. Seven of us sit down for dinner, where buttery rice is paired with minced meat kofteh sabzi, a green olive and garlic dish called zeeytoon parvadeh (made sweeter with lots of pomegranate molasses) kal kabab (smoked eggplant) and a fresh tomato and pomegranate salad. Daniel Bolotin, who has joined us for dinner, encourages us to ask Babzartabi more about her experiences. We ask her about the differences between Iran and Australia. “The sky!” she says, in between mouthfuls. “It’s so blue here!”.