Taste of Freedom

Saturday, March 9, 2019

What’s the link between hot chocolate, a heart for the underdog and rehab opportunities for human trafficking survivors? Well, in the first of a series of spotlights on change makers here, David McIlroy has been speaking to social activist Tara Mullen of Refuge Hot Chocolate …

It’s a chilly December morning in Belfast, and I’m meeting with Tara. I have it on good authority that she has a great story to tell, and as we sip hot drinks in a busy little Belfast café, I’m not disappointed.

Tara explains that her company ‘Refuge’ came into play off the back of her involvement with anti-human trafficking charity ‘Flourish NI’.

“I’ve been involved with them for a while,” she says. “I was also running another social enterprise called Doodlebugs Creative Workshops. It was an arts and craft workshop for kids. We would travel all over Ireland. Again, it was problem-solving and making stuff out of recycled everyday objects, challenging kids to think outside the box, to use materials in a different way than they were purposed for. I did that for seven years.”

“As it came to an end, I started thinking more about Flourish, about how it needed to be made sustainable. I wasn’t really pressing myself or forcing myself to think of an idea to try and solve the problem. But I suppose, just naturally, I found myself sort of thinking about it. When I’m driving I would think a lot about stuff. And then one day, Refuge and Hot Chocolate literally just dropped into my head.”

Tara’s open about her faith as we talk – she’s very clear about where she believes her ‘light-bulb’ moment originated.

“I believe it was God inspired,” she explained. “And I suppose it shows that if you expose yourself to different things in life, I think sometimes they all just come to a crossroads. And there’s something that comes out of that.”

“Years before I was staying in Andora and tried hot chocolate that I’d never tried before. I was just used to our, you know, watery-dishwater stuff, as I call it. You’d think somebody’d just dumped a load of soil in your cup. There’s no actual taste of chocolate, so this was like ‘oh my goodness, what is this?’. I think I’d logged that in my head somewhere.

“So I bought Refuge hot chocolate and I thought I’ll try some of this stuff. So I was looking online and began to search, try some recipes, make up some of my own and try different chocolates and powders. I also tried chocolate bars and chocolate buttons, milks and powdered milk and creams. All sorts of stuff, just to try to work out what was going in.

“I sort of refined it to a few different recipes, maybe 5-7 different kinds. And then I brought a load of friends round to score them. There was one that came out – not the one I liked, I have to say, but everyone else liked it. So that’s the recipe as of today .”

I ask if I’m allowed to know what goes into it, but Tara’s having none of it.

“Oh, it’s a big secret!” she laughs. “There’s no secret to it really – it’s simple, but a lot of the best things are. Chocolate, cream and sugar. No additives, no preservatives.”

Tara also reveals that she’s developed a vegan version of her hot chocolate, as well as a protein chocolate peanut spread (sounds amazing, right?). This quickly leads on to more talk of Flourish and what it’s all based on.

“Refuge is a social enterprise that supports Flourish,” says Tara, between hot chocolate sips. “Three aspects, basically: we put money back into the charity; we raise awareness in general of human trafficking; and we provide rehabilitation opportunities for the clients. It maybe helps them look outside themselves and helps them dream again. Helps them work towards freedom, you know?

“The long-term dream would be having a kitchen, a central kitchen that’s opened to anybody, to the clients round the country and their case workers. So each client is allocated case workers and the case workers can bring the clients to the kitchen and sort of supervise what’s going on and just muck in with them and get involved with chocolate making.”

It all sounds pretty full-on. I ask Tara to tell me a bit more about who helps her.

“It’s me basically that’s running things – chief potion maker, as I call myself,” she says. “And there’s people who become involved here and there. They may have seen us on social media and want to help out. Or they could be friends, family, friends of friends, that sort of thing. So that’s good because it lightens the load.

“But it’s just trying to keep my head in a good place, because if I’m not in a good place nothing’s happening. So we were talking about earlier – just like going to the gym, eating properly, and you know, having a social life!

“There’s nobody else telling you that you need to take a break. It’s not like an ordinary job where somebody’s monitoring you. Only I know, and I’m only kidding myself if I try and cheat the system. So it’s hard, but then I suppose at the same time, because I know the purpose that I’m working for, it’s such a drive. The bigger picture is setting people free.”

“It’s not until maybe you’re at the markets and you’ve seen people face-to-face, and people’s response to the facts you’re telling them about human trafficking, that you realise this is a massive thing. Like, it’s the second biggest criminal activity in the world next to the drugs trade.

“In Northern Ireland, we have a big fishing industry, big agriculture industry, a lot of car washes, and forced begging on the streets. A lot of stuff like that, and people always ask if it’s happening in Northern Ireland? This country has the highest growing rate of sex trafficking in the whole of Europe.

The more Tara talks about the purpose behind Refuge, the more her passion for justice becomes apparent.

“As soon as I say it, my eyes fill up with tears and my mouth goes shaky,” she says (indeed, with tears in her eyes). “And I think I don’t realise the passion I have until I start to speak about it.

“I suppose it’s the heart I have for justice. I’ve always fought for the underdog since I was a child. I wouldn’t want to see bad done to anybody. People deserve to be free and people don’t deserve to be under oppression. And that’s who we are – you don’t have to be born into it.

“People just get taken advantage of, and it doesn’t mean that they’re stupid or uneducated. It just means they were the wrong place at the wrong time.

“I suppose it’s just trying to be sensitive and work out a lot of the time what is God inspired, except for when you have a lightning bolt moment like I did. Flourish is a refuge for people to run to in times of need. You know, a hot cup of chocolate, or coffee or tea, whatever you’re drinking… it’s like a refuge. You’re sort of huddling in, so whatever sort of day you’ve had or whatever’s gone on, you’re sort of just enjoying the experience in that moment.”

As our conversation draws to a close, Tara reminds me once more about where her true passion is drawn from.

“Of course God’s love is behind it,” she says. “God doesn’t want to see his kids hurt, and that’s what it’s all about. I’ve always cried out to the Lord ‘break my heart for what breaks yours’. And in this case, it’s obviously one of those things that I know is from him.”

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