Top British-Iraqi lawyer raises mental health funds through celebrity cookbook

Razzak Mirjan was compelled to make the book after his step-brother took his own life at 18

To give something back is the motto of his English public school Charterhouse and Razzak Mirjan, a lawyer from a prominent Iraqi family, is doing just with a new celebrity-filled charity cookbook.

The keen sportsman excelled at football and cricket at the 17th century prestigious school and has since run numerous marathons around the world – sometimes twice in a week – for a number of charities, including Unicef, the Spinal Injuries Association and, in a nod to his roots, the Iraqi Orphan Foundation.

But when he ran the London marathon last year, raising more than £7,000 for the children’s mental health charity Place2Be, it was, as he told organisers, "a cause very close to my heart".

In fact, his words masked a private heartache that had shattered the lives of his family and set his life on a new course – one he has now decided to share for a greater good.

Two years earlier, Beder, the step-brother he had cheered on their team Fulham FC with, had taken his own life at the age of 18.

Despite their closeness, Mr Mirjan, 30, who lives in London, knew little of Beder’s struggles with mental health. It made him determined to find out more and raise awareness about mental health and suicide prevention, something that was little talked about within the Arab community he had grown up in.

“His death came as a huge shock,” he said. “The large majority of people, including myself, have no idea when someone is struggling.

“As a family, we took the collective decision to start a charity in his name because we understand while it is not possible to rewrite history, there are positives that can be found from our darkest days.”

The charity Beder was launched a year ago with a flurry of events, including a charity football match at his step-brother’s beloved club and a concert in London in March this year by the Palestinian oud-playing troupe, Le Trio Joubran.

When the organisation’s fundraising activities were driven online by the global pandemic, Mr Mirjan had to be creative in his attempts to raise awareness.

Over the summer, he contacted celebrity chefs, restauranteurs and high-profile figures, asking them to share their own experiences and battles with mental health.

Well-known in the British-Iraqi community – his great-grandfather Abdul Razzak Mirjan was the founder of the Mirjan Hospital in Hilla province, Iraq, while his great-uncle Abdul Wahab Mirjan was prime minister of Iraq in 1957 – it did not take long for offers of help to pour in.

Responses flooded in within days – and the result is a cookbook called From Beder’s Kitchen, featuring 90 recipes and personal stories from the likes of Gordon and Tana Ramsay and their daughter Tilly, Yotam Ottolenghi, Sally Clarke, Atul Kochhar and beautician Liz Earle.

The self-published cookbook, released this month, also features a strong contingent of Middle Eastern dishes and chefs, including UAE-based Zahra Abdalla and Kitsch Cupcakes founder Dalia Dogmoch Soubra.
Recipes are divided into sections relating to mental health, from "soul food" to "start your day the right way" and "happy gut, happy life".
Mr Mirjan, who shared his Iraqi-Lebanese father Yahya, 60, with Beder, said: "It didn't take much to persuade people to get involved. Everyone can relate to these issues and to how important they are, particularly as there is a personal story to why we are doing this. "I started approaching people in mid-June and within eight weeks, we had 90 recipes and were actually having to say no to contributors. We just didn't have the space."
His father, who runs a marble and granite supply firm, moved to London in 1975 after fleeing first the Baathist regime in Iraq and then the Lebanese Civil War.

After his marriage with Mr Mirjan’s English mother Noor, now 67, ended, he married Farah, now 52, from Iraq. Beder was the oldest of their two children.

In April 2017, Beder had a promising future before him. He was training to be a pilot and planned to take up a place at Bristol University in the UK to study aeronautical engineering.

With his obsession with computers and gadgets, and dreams of joining the Royal Air Force Cadets, his teachers at Dulwich College in London and his family expected the teenager to go far.

All that promise came to an earth-shattering end when Beder took his own life.

“He was an amazing kid – very loving but quiet, and funny when you got to know him,” said Mr Mirjan.

"When he first came along, I was adamant about calling him my half-brother but as we developed a relationship, there was no half about it. He was my brother and I would see him every weekend.
"I knew about a year before he took his own life that he was on medication and struggling but I did not know to what extent. That's the problem with these things. Just because you are seeing a therapist or are on medication, it does not mean you are going to take your own life.
"It is only now when he is no longer with us that we try to pull together some sort of picture but it is not a clear one."
Mr Mirjan, whose wife Zeina, 30, gave birth to their daughter Leya last month, hopes the cookbook will start a conversation about mental health, particularly at a time when the rigours of the coronavirus pandemic, from coping with isolation and working from home to being separated from loved ones, are starting to take a severe toll.
"As a family, we were never going to hide Beder's death or cover up the truth," he said. "It does take a lot to be honest about it and to open up and show that vulnerability but that is how we hope to overcome that stigma in the community.
"I myself was really naive about the topic of mental health and suicide and I think there has traditionally been a stigma throughout society, not just in the Arab world but worldwide.
"It comes from society expecting you to be strong and not show weakness, and from people feeling that they will be judged negatively or ostracised, so they say nothing.
"By us talking about it and normalising the conversation, it will give others the strength to do so."
This year's Arab Youth Survey, published last month, found more than one third of 18 to 24-year-olds knew someone who suffered from mental health issues, while more than half of the 4,000 young people questioned in 17 countries said it was difficult to access quality healthcare in their native country. Palestinians, Yemenis and Syrians were among the worst affected, with 85 per cent of Palestinians reporting a lack of access to mental health services.
Significantly, 48 per cent of all those surveyed said seeking medical help for mental health issues was viewed negatively in their home countries. The number of young people in Morocco, Lebanon and Libya complaining of a social stigma attached to seeking help for mental health topped 70 per cent.
Suicide is the third leading cause of death among 15 to 19-year-olds, according to the World Health Organisation. Those living in low-income and middle-income countries are said to be at the greatest risk.
That has been tragically demonstrated by a doubling in suicide rates this year in Lebanon, which remains crippled by a financial crisis and political instability. According to the NGO Embrace, which runs a suicide prevention hotline in the country, suicide reports have soared from an average of 200 per month to up to 500. A spate of suicides over the summer was blamed on poverty and starvation.
Yet mental health and suicide remain taboo in many Arab communities. Syrian-born Palestinian chef Joudie Kalla, who ran the successful Baity Kitchen in Chelsea, London, for three years, became an ambassador for Beder and wrote the foreword to the cookbook because of her own struggles with mental health.
The author of Palestine on a Plate said: "Everybody goes through lows and highs. Some are okay but others get really deep and dark – and I had been there at one point in my life.

"I didn't end up doing anything to harm myself but coming from a Middle Eastern background, I know people do not like to talk about these things because they think it is a failure of the family and worry about what people will think."
Ms Kalla, 43, who lives in London, said while her family openly discussed their own battles with mental health, the subject was still taboo among the Arab diaspora.
"I thought the book would be great at raising awareness not just about mental health but what it can potentially lead to," she said. "It is about approaching mental health with kindness and community. The conversation has to change."
The chef cannot pinpoint the beginning of her own struggles. As a child, she was always melancholy, she said. When she reached her teenage years, that developed into anorexia and a number of phobias.
By the time she was in her 20s and studying for a masters in French culture and civilisation in Paris, she had sunk into "the most incredible depression".
She sought numerous therapies and treatments, both conventional and holistic, but said it remained an ongoing battle.
The second lockdown in the UK had posed new challenges but, she said, using different coping mechanisms and anthropomorphising her illness – Winston Churchill famously called his depression a "black dog" – had helped her through the lows.
"Letting go of fighting it, and just accepting it as part of my life and managing it, is how I cope," she said. "It's Joudie 2.0. It changes me as a person when it's there but it is still part of me.
"I know now when she's coming and and how to get myself out of it. Having mental health in your life is a common thing."
Food and cooking have been a source of comfort. In her 20s, she would cook for hours during sleepless nights – "anything with lentils, garlic and turmeric. It was like I was being hugged from the inside."
After university, she trained as a chef before working in Gordon Ramsay's Pengelley's restaurant, as well as Daphne's and Papillon in London, before setting up Baity Kitchen.
She now teaches online cooking classes, which have also been a feature of Beder's fundraising activities since March this year.
Mr Mirjan said food was intrinsic to mental health and wellbeing. "It is a great form of therapy and involves a great deal of self-care because you take time out of your day to do something that invests both in yourself and others, while nutritious ingredients help you both mentally and physically.
"Cooking is a mindful activity. It is also a nice opportunity to follow some instructions and have something go to plan, which in life is quite a rare thing."
From Beder's Kitchen is available at www.beder.org.uk

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