Tuesday 6 December 2016

Come dine with me - welcoming immigrants into your home

A new initiative attempts to tackle isolation by encouraging Irish people to welcome immigrants into their homes

Nicoline Greer

Published 24/11/2016 | 02:30

Julia cooked a coconut satay dish for her husband, Michael, and kids Lithgen, Caomhlu and Daibhi, while entertaining Peju and her daughter Nike on Welcome Dinners. Photo: Andrew Downes
Julia cooked a coconut satay dish for her husband, Michael, and kids Lithgen, Caomhlu and Daibhi, while entertaining Peju and her daughter Nike on Welcome Dinners. Photo: Andrew Downes
Julia cooked a coconut satay dish
Sadhbh Lee, her flatmate, Wendy Mlalazi and Fellystus Chiswamu
Julia and Peju believe the dinners are beneficial

As a nation, we pride ourselves on being a welcoming lot. But beyond the pub banter, is it really that easy for an outsider to integrate into our communities?

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Pia Fennell has been living in Ireland for four years but she is originally from the United States. "There is this idea that Irish people are incredibly warm and welcoming and I think they are to a degree," she says.

Pia found that while the Irish were friendly, making real friends was more challenging. When she first moved to Ireland, she was single. "I did find it difficult to infiltrate social circles and to connect with people more than just a few drinks."

It was part of the reason why, when an ad for something called Welcome Dinners popped up on her Facebook feed, she signed up immediately. "I like to cook, I like to have people over. And I can really empathise with people that are new to a different country and who are still finding their footing," she explains.

Welcome Dinners are the latest initiative from social entrepreneurial organisation ChangeX. The idea originated in Sweden in 2014 when a woman named Ebba Akerman was teaching Swedish to immigrants. Her idea was simple: invite a recently-arrived immigrant for dinner in your home. And it caught on. As a movement, dinners for strangers in people's own homes have spread beyond Sweden, with up to 25,000 dinners being hosted across Europe so far.

The people at ChangeX heard about the success of the dinners and incorporated them into their expanding repertoire of social innovations, building on successes like Men's Sheds, Street Feast and Food Cloud.

The dinners have only been up and running for a few months, but have proven to be one of the most popular of ChangeX's initiatives. "We launched at the end of August and the response has been amazing," says Katie Smith from ChangeX. With grim images of refugees attempting to reach Europe shared across traditional and social media, many people have been feeling at a loss to know what to do to help on a personal level. "We've had a huge response from Irish people who want to do something to make people feel more welcome when they arrive here and to help with integration," says Katie.

So far, over 400 people have signed up to host a dinner for a stranger in their home. Katie believes the simplicity of the idea appeals to people.

"All you are committing to is one evening, no strings attached. The migrant can be any kind of migrant: an economic migrant, an asylum seeker - it doesn't matter, just someone who is new to the community and might not have those links yet."

Now married with two young children and living in Dublin 8, Pia, her husband and their two young sons were matched with a Croatian couple who had arrived in Ireland just five weeks previously.

"We did a lot of getting-to-know-you type questions. They were telling us a lot about Croatia, which was very interesting, but it became very practical as well," says Pia. They had questions about things we often take for granted, like taxes and banking. Pia says the conversation flowed and the evening was a success.

"It's such a basic thing - breaking bread with people. It's such an easy, organic way to connect and welcome people. You're not asking anyone to do anything too far out of their comfort zone. I think it is a wonderful idea."

While there have been plenty of people signing up to host, it has been more difficult to find guests - the very people they want to reach are, by nature, more likely to be isolated from their local communities and less likely to hear about the dinners.

In Galway, ChangeX linked in with the Direct Provision Centre at Salthill to find people who would be interested in attending a dinner.

Peju Basira Awoyemi, a pharmacist from Nigeria who has been in Ireland for four years, and her daughter Nike (20) were matched up with Julia Roddy, a lecturer in screenwriting in Galway, who has four sons.

"Julia and her family made us feel so welcome," says Nike. "It was like we had known each other for a while. We were able to connect and talk."

Equally, Julia found the experience to be hugely beneficial for herself and her own children. "We have a big atlas and we were able to figure out where they are from and a whole story unfolded just from looking at the map," she says. "Peju still has three sons in Nigeria. One of them is the same age as one of my sons and that brought home the reality of her circumstances."

There is no obligation to cook anything specific beyond dietary requirements. Pia cooked her usual "crowd-pleaser go-to Sunday dinner" of roast chicken and veg. Julia researched Nigerian recipes. "I cooked a lovely coconut satay dish with meat, a big salad and rice with turmeric and garlic, and a chocolate cake."

Sadhbh Lee is a 24-year-old junior doctor in Galway. She was matched with two Zimbabwean women around the same age, Wendy Mlalazi and Fellystus Chiswamu (pictured right).

When Wendy and Fellystus heard they were being served vegetarian curry by a woman with a strangely-spelled name, they didn't know what to expect. "I actually thought she was Indian," laughs Fellystus. "We thought she would be an old lady."

Sadhbh says she was apprehensive about welcoming strangers into her house. "I thought: 'Is this going to be tough? Are we going to have these big awkward silences?' But we actually got on very well. They're really nice, really friendly and easy to chat with. Despite different cultures there's still so much to say. We talked about going out, what they are interested in, families, work - everything."

Fellystus and Wendy are from Bulawayo, the second biggest city in Zimbabwe, and have been living here since May. Back in Zimbabwe, Fellystus worked as a nurse and Wendy as an accountant. At home, they would have gone out with friends to "share meals, talk about life, share a glass of wine".

The inability to prepare their own food is one of the factors that has been identified by research as being one of the most challenging aspects of life in Direct Provision. "You just eat whatever is made: rice, potatoes, stew. It's proper food but it's just tiring having the same food every day," says Fellystus.

For Sadhbh, learning about life in Direct Provision was an eye-opener. "I didn't fully understand what life in the provision centre was like. Because they are two people who are educated, they worked a lot and to come from that and to be doing nothing - me and my flatmate were just imagining how hard that would be. That was the big shocking thing for me."

It was the first time Fellystus and Wendy had been in an Irish person's home and for them, it broke up the humdrum routine of life in the centre. "You eat, you sleep, you eat again, you sleep again.

"You start thinking about home - you start thinking about things you can't change. If you have something like the dinner, you have something to look forward to. We were actually looking forward to it for two weeks."

There is no obligation to see the person again but Sadhbh has already arranged to meet up with Wendy and Fellystus again to go for a walk on the beach.

Peju and Nike are going back to Julia's house for dinner - but this time, they are cooking. Julia will take them shopping for ingredients - that will include one of their favourites from home, yam - beforehand. They will be able to do something most of us take for granted: shopping for our own food and cooking it at home.

Given that Ireland's population is projected to keep on increasing - in part due to a steady and net immigration rate of 30,000 people a year, according to the most recent CSO data - how we integrate with the strangers in our midst is something that can only become increasingly important.

Julia believes the dinners could have far-reaching positive effects: "My kids benefited from it, I benefitted from it, Peju and Nike benefitted from it. The amount of texts I got from them to say thank you, we had such a great day.

"And I think if we can spread that energy, only good can come of this."

For Fellystus, the invitation to dinner meant a lot: "It makes me think that there are people out there that still care."

For more information and to find out more about signing up to Welcome Dinners and United Invitations, see changex.org/unitedinvitations.

Irish Independent

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