A contribution by Megan, who hosted a Welcome Dinner in Galway. Welcome Dinners or United Invitations is a welcoming movement that has been growing very quickly across Europe and is now getting popular in Ireland. It’s a simple idea bringing together natives and new migrants to share a meal. It’s all about food, language and social interaction.
I waited nervously in the foyer of the Eglinton hotel for our Welcome dinner guests on a cold Friday evening in November. It felt like a blind date – what if we didn’t have anything in common?
Bekezela and Bongani from Zimbabwe soon arrived – dressed glamorously and full of smiles. We greeted each other warmly and headed to the car. The ladies were great company – full of chat and infectious laughter -so any worries I had, disappeared immediately.
My boyfriend, Avi joined us back at the apartment and we got to know our guests a bit better. Bekezela told us she’d been in the Eglinton centre for two years already, and Bongani for a year and a half. They had met here in Ireland, and although both are qualified and experienced professionals, they are studying an access course at NUIG – as they are not allowed to work or study at third level here.
While we enjoyed our Irish stew and red wine we chatted animatedly about our different origins, adjusting to Irish culture and the challenges of living in Direct Provision. I was ashamed to hear that they had experienced racism here – on a march in Dublin to end the current Direct Provision system, they had been told by an Irish person to “Go home”.
While the ladies are thankful for their safety, and all they have been given here; all they want are their basic rights in this country, and to live free of discrimination. Even the simple ritual of cooking for themselves is not possible for them in Direct Provision.
With Christmas on the horizon, talk turned to how they usually celebrate festivities back home, and Bekezela and Bongani told us of big family lunches in the sunshine, with delicious food and music. Christmas dinner in the Direct Provision centre is the same as every week – meatballs if it’s on a Tuesday.
While we could never recreate a Zimbabwean Christmas, we invited the ladies to our place for a Christmas dinner party where they will have the chance to use our kitchen to cook Zimbabwean food and our friends will each bring a dish.
One of the hard things about moving to Ireland can be getting past initial friendliness to building a real friendship, and we hope to continue to stay in touch with our new friends. I’m happy that we broke out of our usual social circle and spent time with these warm, intelligent and interesting women. It was a truly enjoyable evening, and we learned something about each other’s cultures in the process.
Welcome Dinners are the perfect antidote to the social bubble that many of us find ourselves in nowadays, and food is the ultimate leveller. The simple act of sharing a meal can show that the Irish welcome still holds true, and it might even make us culturally richer in the process.