Chernise Neo came to the UK to study and never left. She now runs an artisan bakery in Coventry training and hiring women from refugee backgrounds.
I arrived in the UK back in 2006 to take up the offer of a place for a bachelor’s degree in Politics and Sociology at Warwick University. As a 19-year-old girl, I didn’t have a definite idea of what I wanted to do with my life. However, the plan at the back of my mind was to study, graduate and then go back to Singapore to work in the Civil Service there. I would never have imagined I’d stay here.
While at Warwick University I was very involved with the local church so I quickly met people who were friendly and welcoming towards me. That really made a difference to how welcome I felt in Britain.
When my church asked me if, after graduation, I would stay on to start up a part of their work, I accepted. My job was to welcome international students and help them to connect with British families. I suppose that I wanted to see that same kind of hospitality that I received extended to others. And there was a need for it. We discovered that many international students were lonely and homesick.
The more I stayed, the more I felt I wanted to stay. I went from thinking, ‘At some point, I’ll leave and go home to Singapore,’ to ‘Actually I think this might be home.’ In the course of that time, I made really good friends and they became my family here. I still see quite a lot of them, we play badminton every Monday and have spent a number of Christmases together.
I’ve always felt very welcome, but there were a few things that were different and surprised me. For instance, the weather! I was coming from Singapore where it’s warm all the time to a country where it’s terribly cold in the winter.
All these years I have kept with me a rice cooker, which is such a foundational thing in Asia. It was a present from my parents when they came to visit me. I am sure they sell rice cookers in this country as well, but this one has sentimental value.
One of the things that I have found really hilarious since coming here is when people ask me what my trick is to cooking rice since I eat it quite often. The truth is that I actually have no idea how to cook rice in a pot because I’ve always used my rice cooker: I just press a button and it comes out perfectly done! So I don’t know what I would do without my rice cooker, it has been a real link to home throughout my 14 years of living here.
It’s such an irony that I know so little about cooking rice and so much about baking bread. I had been a really enthusiastic home baker, I taught myself to make sourdough, cakes and biscuits and this eventually led me to open Proof Bakery in Coventry. It is an artisan bakery that trains and hires women from refugee backgrounds.
It started a few years ago, when each time I saw news footage of the Syrian refugee crisis, I wanted to help in some way but didn’t know how. I thought I needed special skills for that, like being a social worker or a counsellor, so I never really connected the baking with refugees.
Then I talked about it with some friends and managed to organise a bread workshop at the Coventry Refugee and Migrant Centre. During the workshop, while teaching bread-making to refugee women, I noticed that many of them were great at it already. It really touched me that it was something familiar and almost comforting for them. That set me on a path. I realised that their skills in this area could be used in employment in Britain and that’s how the bakery idea started.
Since Proof Bakery opened in October 2018, we’ve seen ten women graduate with certificates from our training. Three are employed with us and they’ve gone from being novice bakers to shift supervisors. All of these women are phenomenal. They really make the bakery. Since their graduation last year, they’ve all gone up in their English level, two of them have got their driving licences and one recently passed her ‘Life in the UK Test’. Their ambition and resilience encourage me every day.
Life at the bakery is a rollercoaster with huge ups and downs. When we see someone graduate, it’s phenomenal, but there are bad days too. By far the most difficult bit is balancing our books and making all the little details and systems of the bakery run smoothly.
We would like to train a huge number of women, to see them get a job and to support them, but we can only do what we have the capacity for. I’ve had a lot of support from many social enterprise training programs but it’s a challenge and we haven’t broken even yet. We are still working out how to deliver a top-quality product, while also turning a healthy surplus.
To help us keep going, we are looking for more customers, of course, and also sponsors for the bakery’s training programs. Lots of individuals know about our bread now, which is great, but we would also love to grow by selling our baking classes, and supplying cafés, shops and restaurants.
We try to be a community, not just a workplace. Beyond the training programs, we invite the bakers to parties and socials. We do little fun things to show them that we care about them and their kids. It’s a way of slowly building friendship and trust with people.
I feel a sense of connection with people who have come to this country from very difficult situations. Perhaps this is because I have some understanding of what it means to come to a place that is very culturally different from what you are used to, and having to adjust to it.
This job brings me a lot of satisfaction. What I am looking forward to now is seeing other women experience this same sense of fulfilment, autonomy and purpose.