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Cooking Circles: Heidi Zajac

Jessica Schumann

In a world where we are connected now more than ever, how is it that so many women and girls still find themselves so isolated and lacking confidence within their own communities?

Heidi Zajac is one Canberra gal doing everything she can to cook up the perfect recipe to connect these very females around the world but more specifically in Canberra and Timor Leste (East Timor), defying both distance and language barriers to empower, inspire and facilitate friendships.

And she’s founded it on the one thing that we are all familiar with — cooking and food.

Following a chance meeting with a group of Australian women looking to establish a YWCA in East Timor in 2012, Heidi realised just how little she knew about the country including that half the population live in poverty and made her first trip that same year to our tumultuous neighbour where she lived with a local Timorese woman, Mana Berta, and her family to learn more about the processes needed to integrate the organisation.

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Yet despite an age difference of just two years, Heidi says another role emerged — in the kitchen ­— where she not only shadowed Berta but marvelled at her mastery with food and flavour.

Heidi fell in love with not only the culture of her newfound friend but a passion to discover how women from vastly different cultures had so much in common and how they could be brought together.

“We discussed recipes and began to share stories, [while] coming to know one another’s upbringing and families,” says Heidi.

“I began to see food and cooking as levellers between Berta and I. Both of us were teaching and both of us were discovering.”

It was through this exchange that Heidi realised she could use cooking as a tool to bring women together and create a space conducive to women forming connections.

It also became the very foundation that would see Heidi’s cooking project become a reality.

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But it wasn’t until 2014 that the parameters for Cooking Circles came together with the assistance of seed funding from a grant through YWCA Canberra and its Great Ydeas Small Grants program.

The funding allowed for a second trip to Timor Leste where Heidi was introduced to new women in Berta’s community — both Timorese and foreigners — and where she delved further down the path of community development and creating small scale but meaningful change.

“Cooking Circles has a vision that women and girls are confident in their worth and abilities,” says Heidi.

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“Through the groups, women demonstrate leadership when they host or lead a Cooking Circle. Their knowledge and skills are validated by talking about cooking, food, flavours and sharing recipes with others.

“Together these elements are building blocks for self-actualisation and self-confidence.”

Twelve months on and Heidi’s Cooking Circles have been nominated for the Anti Poverty Awards; an award recognising the work of passionate young Australians tackling inequality and injustice in Australia and abroad.

Says Heidi, the nomination alone has already helped to increase the profile of Cooking Circles and with it, a depth of understanding between Australian and Timorese women.

“The Awards are important purely for the attention they bring to the affliction of poverty in both local and international communities alike,” says Heidi.

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“To those of us who have never experienced poverty, we tend to think of [it] as living without enough money to get by which of course it includes but people also live in poverty if they live without rights and freedoms in their communities and society.”

If she wins, Heidi says she’ll return to Timor Leste for the next stage of Cooking Circles.

“I’m hoping to work with the women whom I’ve connected with in Timor Leste including Bertha, to hold cooking classes at a local NGO for women in Dili,” she says.

“There is further research and recording to be done among the Timorese ex-pat community of women living in Australia to gather more information and stories about Timorese food. Research wil also be done in Timor Leste as well with a mix of local NGOs, small businesses, farmers and rural families.”

Special events such as this Saturday’s fundraiser will help to continue Heidi’s work and support women’s empowerment, human rights and Timor Leste. Cooking Circles are open to all Canberra women whether to eat, cook or just support others.

Cooking is universal and connects us in a way that goes beyond gender, age or race; it brings us together in good times and bad, and it’s happening right here in our very own kitchens.

To support Heidi and Cooking Circles, head across to the Anti Poverty Awards and place your vote here.

Join Cooking Circles

Women in Canberra are invited to join a Cooking Circle (or two) and connect with other women in the community. The groups are very diverse and vary in age, family, profession and lifestyle. Groups meet in the community centre at Kingston for lunch every Wednesday and dinners once a month. Other groups run from our homes, usually for dinners.

Cooking Circles is holding a dinner to fundraise for the Alola Foundation established by Kirsty Sword Gusmão in 2001 to work with women and children in Timor Leste.

The essentials

What: Alola Foundation Cooking Circles Fundraiser
When: 5pm-8pm Saturday 19 September
Where: Currie Crescent Community Centre — The Canberra Baptist Church, Kingston
How much: $25 per person. RSVP is essential to [email protected]
Web: www.cookingcircles.org or find Cooking Circles on Facebook.

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Jessica Schumann

A 'rambling ranga' at heart, Jessica Schumann is a bubbly, creative social thinker who thrives on words, social media and an innate knack for sharing stories. When she finds the time to write, Jessica seeks out the beauty in change and the essence of human condition. Varied and diverse in nature, her writing delves into the enviable world of people, travel, food and culture. When you can't find her in a nook writing, just follow your nose and you’ll soon find Jessica indulging in her other passion – cooking – or curled up on the couch with a good book in hand. You can find her over at ramblingranga.com.au. More about the Author

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