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'I was homeless and didn't even know how to make a cup of tea when I came to the UK - now I'm a chef'

MyLondon logo MyLondon 23/06/2022 Unzela Khan

A man who fled Sri Lanka after suffering from mental health issues has turned his life around through finding his love for cooking. Yogi, who didn't even know how to make a cup of tea when he moved to the UK is now a chef.

The dad, who lives in North London, also teaches others how to cook in a bid to empower other refugees and migrants in their journey to integration through supporting them to run cookery classes. Yogi moved to the UK from Sri Lanka in 2008 - but it wasn't an easy move as he experienced many problems when he came to London, often he would sleep on the streets as he became homeless.

Speaking to MyLondon, he opened up about his experience of coming to the city alone. He said: "A lot of the time I was homeless and sleeping on the streets."

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He added: "It was a very difficult life and it was hard because I had no one here. After a while, the Sri Lankan embassy arranged for a place for me to stay. I was living in a shared room for a week."

Yogi added that he experienced heart failure in this period, and became depressed, even trying to take his own life. He continued: "I tried to end my life - I took an overdose. The last thing I remember, I was falling down at the station. When I woke up, I was in a mental hospital.

"I was there for six weeks. There were more problems in the hospital - it was too loud. I did some counselling there."

He was introduced to the charity, Migrateful, through this he was able to make friends, learn how to cook and get his hygiene and food safety certificates. Eventually he got a job woking in the British Museum and continued teaching online cooking classes during the pandemic, with in person classes after.

But without his family, the last few years have been tough. He last saw his 16-year-old daughter when she was just a toddler, he said: "Last year my family came to the UK. At that point, I had last seen my daughter when she was two years old, now she’s 16.

"For 14 years I hadn’t seen my family. Normally I was seeing her on WhatsApp calls but the first time I saw my daughter in person, I cried, I didn't recognise her.

"She was standing behind my wife, I thought, “oh this is my daughter!”. I don't know how to describe that feeling.

"How can I? No words came. I tried to talk but I couldn't. We just hugged and kissed for a long time. That was a very very nice moment.

"The first seven to eight years of my life here were bad. I don't like to think about that. I don't want that anymore. Now my life and everything is going positively. My heart is better. They went to change the pacemaker, and said I didn't need it anymore - I don't have one right now. I'm very happy. I can count on happy moments now."

His daughter now goes to school in London and is doing her GCSE exams. Yogi said: "I'm very proud of my daughter - she is doing very well. She studies very well. Two months ago in her mock exam, she got an A+ on everything: Chemistry, Physics, Maths, Biology, English, Technology, Business Studies. And Business Studies is new for her - she only did this subject for three months. My daughter definitely got her intelligence from my wife!"

In terms of his passion for cooking, Yogi says his favourite dish to make is biryani and English-Sri Lankan mixed food. He's even launched his own Instagram page for his cooking now.

"I mostly make and eat Sri Lankan food. When I was in Sri Lanka I was always eating rice and curry, I still eat this a lot although sometimes I make sandwiches! They’re easy….tuna sandwiches! I like Sri Lankan breakfast food, we eat idli, chutney, sambar, string hoppers, dosa (dosa is like a pancake, very crispy). Sometimes when Im feeling lazy in the morning, I eat egg and toast.

"When I first started to cook here at Migrateful, I didn't know how to make a cup of tea! I asked my mum to help and I made a lentil dahl curry with her telling me how to do it over the phone! When I cooked and I tasted it, I enjoyed it. I thought, “ah I cooked, I can!” So the next day, my mum talked me through another one. Slowly, slowly I started to be able to cook.

"At the time, I was living in Ealing Broadway. I was on the second floor of the building with two people from Iran. When I cooked, I always gave food to them. They enjoyed the taste. When I cooked, sometimes the smells spread - everything is fried, the cumin seeds, mustard seeds…most of the seeds! They would come and knock on the door saying, “Yogi what are you cooking today?!” They would give their food and I would give my food - we exchanged! Im still in contact with them now."

You can follow Yogi’s cookery instagram page @yogissrilankankitchen and book a ticket and experience a public cookery class led by Yogi here.

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