Asma Meer’s cake-fuelled community initiative is a simple yet effective way of breaking down barriers and celebrating our differences
If you’re of the opinion that too much cake can be a bad thing, then maybe it’s time to reconsider. Asma Meer certainly thinks so – for almost two years now, she has witnessed the transformative effect that a humble slice of Victoria sponge or lemon drizzle cake can have on communities.
“There’s more love than hate in this world,” says the 47-year-old mother of four. “Bringing people together with a piece of cake to talk and meet is so simple – and that’s why it works.”
It’s midday in Sidcup, south-east London, and the modest Emmanuel Church hall plays host to the latest gathering of the Peace of Cake group. It’s an initiative that Asma started in response to the Paris attacks of November 2015, but it has since expanded beyond all expectation.
“It wasn’t my intention to do more than one meeting,” recalls Asma, glancing at a long table filled with confection of every description. The room echoes with the lively chatter of today’s turnout of more than 50 – adults, children, regulars and newcomers. “I thought it would be a one-off. Four or five people in my house, sipping tea and putting the world to rights.”
From her home in Lewisham, Asma watched the Paris atrocities unfold. She experienced first-hand the anti-Muslim feeling those attacks provoked in the UK, and decided to act. She posted a message on Facebook, speaking of how her young son’s classmates had quizzed him about Isis, and how she wanted to simply arrange an afternoon tea called Meet a Muslim, and show solidarity against Isis.
The reaction – 800 likes and 250 comments in two days – was overwhelming, and the first meeting took place at Goldsmith’s Community Centre.
“I just thought, ‘People aren’t talking,’” she remembers. “The true essence of Islam is all about peace, tolerance and being useful to society. I don’t want people attacking Muslims through misunderstanding. For me, that was the driving force.” But Asma also recognised that there was a need and desire to create an environment for communities to share and exchange views, and simply talk to each other. Peace of Cake, a natural antidote to the anonymous, removed world of social media, was born and the reaction has been phenomenal. “I think its simplicity has made it successful,” Asma insists. “And the opportunity to share cake!”
The concept quickly evolved. After Brexit, Asma arranged a Peace of Cake inviting Remainers and those from the Leave campaign. Ever since, she says, the group has been about tackling division in every walk of life: “wealthy, not wealthy, employed and unemployed, different religions, different cultures, colours, opinions”. The events have no agenda other than bringing people together to help the community thrive. Peace of Cake’s guiding principles, are that there should be no guest speaker – “It’s not about one viewpoint” – and that difficult questions and open discussion should be encouraged.
And this seemingly straightforward idea has borne fruit. Over the past months, meetings have taken place across London, in mosques, temples, churches, synagogues and community centres, attracting hundreds of people. “It works because sometimes those one-to-one conversations are the most powerful,” says Asma. “You meet someone, make a connection, talk, hear a different viewpoint.” And the effect of these new talkfests, she’s says, amazed her.
One of her favourite stories is about a woman with extreme right-wing views who would post Britain First videos on Facebook. She attended a meeting, and “ended up bonding with a Muslim woman because both their children were suffering bullying at school”. Asma says she regards her as friend now. “Peace of Cake changed her whole view of Muslims, and the two women ended up hugging. The Muslim woman wore full niqab, and the other was affiliated to a group that wanted to ban the niqab, and they were hugging. Amazing!”
That wish to find common ground is shared by those in attendance today. “I’ve never known anything like this,” says Karen Arney, a 51-year-old teaching assistant and a first-timer. “I think it’s important to show support for events like this. We might have different cultures and religions but we can celebrate that.”
Sakina Sheikh, a 27-year-old social-justice campaigner, agrees, believing that the unique environment of Peace of Cake events is key. “Creating a space where you remove the barriers that sometimes divide us – just come, have a piece of cake, have a cup of tea – I couldn’t encourage spaces like that more,” she says. “The beautiful words of the late MP Jo Cox stay with me very strongly: ‘We have more in common than that which divides us.’”
Asma is a career coach by profession but life has, somewhat unexpectedly, been taken over by Peace of Cake. She was born in Malawi, Africa, and arrived in Britain at the age of two. She fondly remembers a childhood that she now wants for her own children. “I think we’re a really tolerant society in Britain. We’re different to most countries in that we have this welcoming tolerance and I don’t want that to change.”
Determined, yet incredibly modest, she was introduced to “the goodness in people”, when, in 2002, she and her husband began the search to find a bone marrow donor for their two-and-a-half-year-old son, Ibrahim. Tragically he died, but Asma’s campaigning in the field has continued. She brings the same passion to Peace of Cake, although she remains reluctant to take credit. “I don’t feel I have made it happen,” she insists. “There’s a committee (made up of supportive and encouraging people who keep me going), and I also think if something has to be done then somebody has to do it.”
While Asma might wish to shy away from the limelight, others are only too happy to laud the work of someone they regard as a remarkable woman.
The online parenting network Mummy’s Gin Fund (MGF) recently nominated her for a Pride of Britain TSB Community Partner Award. “Asma and her crew continue to inspire and motivate us all,” says the founder of MGF, Helen Hamston. “Through her unfaltering commitment to inclusion and solidarity, our children are introduced to every possible race, religion and person. Asma has arranged events, marches and tea parties all with one underlying message: communication and cohesion will always outshine division and hate.”
In September, Peace of Cake will host a special event at Ben & Jerry’s flagship store in Soho, London and then in Leicester at St Philip’s Centre. Beyond that, there are plans to take the meetings outside of London, starting off in Manchester. There’s even talk of an event in Detroit, USA.
And as for Asma’s ambitions? That’s a piece of cake, so to speak. “I believe in free speech,” she says. “I don’t want to change people. What I want is to change the atmosphere so people can be who they are but they can still feel accepted and safe and loved and give love. The power of good is so much stronger than hate but we don’t always get a platform to show it. And that’s what I think Peace of Cake is doing. People want to reach out. The ambition is to get people talking. That’s the most important thing.”
HOW CAN YOU GET INVOLVED?:
Stage your own Peace of Cake event:
• “A date and venue is all you need,” says Asma. “Get in touch and we’ll help promote and publicise the day.”
• Invite as many different people as you can. At least someone from another faith, colour, race, religion, age or gender.
• Have a cake (made or shop-bought) and tea and coffee to serve.
• Encourage people to talk and introduce one another.
• Peace of Cake is not about one viewpoint. The idea is that everyone has their own views and feels free to share them.
• Don’t invite a guest speaker. Peace of Cake isn’t about lecturing people or telling them how to think. It’s about
respecting them, no matter what, and allowing questions to be asked on a one-to-one basis.
• If you disagree with someone, don’t exclude them from future events. Invite them back.
For more information and inspiration, visit the Peace of Cake blog: https://peaceofcaketogetherblog.wordpress.com