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Meet Barbara Sidoti and her work with migrants and youth in the food sector in Sicily

Barbara Sidoti is an international consultant with extensive experience in migration policies, human rights, the fight against trafficking in persons and migrants smuggling. She works on policy and project development, capacity building and training, with a particular focus on criminal justice systems and the cooperation between State and non-State actors. She supports and facilitates multi-stakeholder strategic development and planning. Barbara has worked with UNODC, the OSCE, ODIHR, ICMPD, GIZ, CARE etc. A researcher and a social innovator, she is the author of various publications and the founder of 11eleven, an avant-garde integration project co-created with talented young migrants and Italian youth. 

SIE recently interviewed Barbara on 11eleven for our Women in Social Innovation series - a series of interviews of interesting women working on great social innovation projects across Europe. 

Tell us a bit about your project and what inspired you to do this work.

11eleven was born out of the dream of a small group of boys from West Africa who I used to be the legal guardian of. The project took shape in the kitchen of my house, in Sicily. I used to host these teenagers on Sundays for lunch, and they would insist on cooking. I was surprised when I first tasted the food because it was really delicious and very creative. In fact, it was when they could not find all they needed and they would simply mix some Italian ingredient in their traditional recipes. They seemed to have a strong sensibility towards food, so their choices were always good.

The whole process of communication among us was fascinating and we would always end up discussing religion, cultural issues, life etc. It was a great experience. These young boys are always represented as a problem and a burden but I thought this didn’t match my experience. I found them full of energy and talent, yet I could see that there is no real venue for them to express it. Integration programs as they are designed do not work for them. I thought this is such a waste of lives, talent, and opportunities. One day I asked them to share their dreams and we wrote them up on small pieces of paper and displayed them on the wall. The result was great. From that day on, I started thinking about possibilities to make that dream come true and become an itinerary for life into our society.

Two months later, in October 2014, we founded 11eleven – a social enterprise active in the food sector. We started testing our methodology for food and intercultural communication in a professional kitchen operating within a theatre in the centre of Catania: Scenario Pubblico. Today we manage the cafeteria-restaurant, which is open daily from 9:00 till night. The enterprise is co-owned by the young people who work within it: Yahya from the Gambia, Alessio from Catania/Rome, Abramo (who is half-Moroccan half Italian), Nat (who is half Somali half Italian), Ezio, Giovanni, and myself. We also have 4 traineeships open on a rotation basis so that more people can get trained and be part of the project. Since we started, we have been working with a lot of wonderful people, some of which left their amazing recipes with us. LemLem for instance taught us how to make the East African Tzigini and today, we offer it in 11eleven both in its traditional version and in an Afro-Sicilian fusion re-elaboration.

Can you tell us about a defining moment where you could see the impact of your project? 

The day we received the news that we had won a competition that would allow us to start a partnership to produce Afro-Sicilian food products and recipes based on the 11eleven method and philosophy - this is the moment when I realised that the idea has a real potential to be replicated and scaled. When after a few months, we learnt that we will be able to launch our first laboratory-school for food and intercultural communication in 2016 - it was really a happy moment for us. We will be able to train and create opportunities for many more young people who become part of our society. Many Italian youth will be involved too, because integration does not happen in segregated camps managed by the State or in projects devote only to ‘migrants’.

What kind of organisations or people would you like to connect with that could further benefit your work?

I think it would be great for us in 11eleven at this stage to have the opportunity to connect with professionals in the food sector from all over Europe, who like the idea and would like to collaborate with us to develop it further: chefs and food experts who are attracted by the challenge of Afro-Sicilian fusion cooking and want to come and co-create recipes with us. I dream of a small portal or platform that allows people to come and go, do a week or a month of training and co-creation, experience, exchange, learn with us. I also dream of a team of intercultural communication professionals and mediators who would want to help us design a really innovative integration program that uses food as a base for cultural exchange, learning and respect. Because you know, food is really a wonderful metaphor for cultural encounters. You can’t cook with someone else, unless you are open to listening and learning and if you are open, the recipes that can come out of that exchange can unleash the potential for great creativity.

Read more Women in Social Innovation interviews here.