Almost exactly one year ago Megan Vine and her partner Avi decided to host a Welcome Dinner at their home in Galway. The idea of the Welcome Dinner was born in Sweden and introduced in Ireland in autumn 2016: Invite a new arrival in your community to a home-cooked meal. Because over a shared meal it’s easier to find some commonalities and get to know each other.
After talking to her Welcome Dinner guests from Zimbabwe, Megan realized that there might be something different needed in Galway, where around 350 people are living in Direct Provision (DP), waiting for an answer to their applications for asylum.
Together with her boyfriend Avi and with Becky and Bongani from the Eglington Centre in Salthill, one of the two DP Centres in Galway, Megan organised a Pot Luck Dinner that over the course of a few months has grown into a major initiative in Galway now called “The Melting Potluck” which brings the asylum seeker and Irish communities together.
We have followed the transition of the project with excitement over the year and recently spoke to Megan (pictured below, on the left) about what the initiative means for Galway, how it all happened and what her plans are for the year ahead.
You’ve decided to develop the Welcome Dinner into a different idea quite quickly after hosting your first Welcome Dinner. What made you take the concept a step further? What were you hoping to achieve? Or was it just for the enjoyment factor?
I’m Irish, so I definitely do things for the craic and I enjoy to bring groups of people together over food. So that alone would probably be reason enough. But it was also triggered by hearing from Beke and Bongani about their living situation in Direct Provision.
In addition I heard from Katie in ChangeX that lots of Irish people want to host a dinner but not a lot of people are taking it up. I realized that in the countries where the concept of inviting people to a home-cooked meal worked well, like Germany or Sweden, the system was different. People’s lives aren’t so institutionalized as they are in Direct Provision. Our system here creates massive barriers for asylum seekers to connect with people in Ireland, not to mention going into someone’s home. You are so separated from the Irish Culture.
Beke and Bongani also told me that it’s not something they would do where they come from, to go over for dinner to someone’s home. They said: ‘We always have a big dinner with all the neighbours and family.’ So that’s what we decided to do: A Communal Welcome Dinner. That’s so much more of an experience anyway.
How much did you know about Direct Provision before meeting your Welcome Dinner guests?
I knew of course that the system exists but I had never met anyone who lived in the Direct Provision system before and it was absolutely disheartening to hear about the conditions there.
Only now can I really empathise with the situation people are in. I often hear them describe it as living in Limbo.
It can take up to 12 years until you know if you can remain or have to leave. During that time people are stuck in the system unable to do anything. They live on the bare minimum, sharing one hotel room with 2-4 people. There is very little privacy to have in such a small space. People feel infantilized, not being allowed to work, and, what made us feel like the Pot Luck Dinner would be an impactful idea, often not even allowed to cook for themselves. Often there are not even the facilities available to do so.
It depends on the centre but often the quality of the food is horrible, badly cooked and mostly unhealthy. And, the meals are all scheduled and follow a strict plan; if on Christmas it’s meatball-day, then it’s meatballs for Christmas.
So, the food issue was a big deal for Beke and Bongani.
We talked a lot about how food links us to our culture and identity. What it means when you can’t taste the flavours anymore, smell the smells, and cook the meals you’re used to. It disconnects you from who you are. That is one big part of the violence of the system that about 5,000 people in Ireland are in.
Was it easy for you to put the idea into action? Were there barriers to connecting with people living in Direct Provision and inviting them to cook together?
I lived in the UK for a few years. I worked there on community projects around drama and storytelling, so the whole idea of working on projects with people and in the community wasn’t new to me.
My boyfriend Avi could emphasize with the situation on a whole different level. He was waiting himself on a leave to remain basis for 13 years in England as a refugee from Sri Lanka. He didn’t have a passport, couldn’t leave the country, but he could at least work and live his life.
But what really gave the idea of doing something bigger the push was the enthusiasm of a friend of mine at the Atlantic language school Elena (see image above). She has a lot of experience in organising events and accelerated it all. We found a venue quickly, and with a team of the three of us, plus Cynthia and Monica from the Eglington centre, we got going.
We also got some help from Galway City Partnership, who linked us up with guys in the other Direct Provision Centre, the Great Western Hostel, and then more people, Mduduzi, Lazarus and Jayson got involved. So we’re a big team now.
What is the Melting Potluck actually like?
At our last dinner we had around 70 people in total from Direct Provision and the local community. The venue we have at the moment has a capacity of 40 or so, so it was a bit hectic! There was brilliant live music provided by Kingsley Ayoke, Paddy Gunning and Donal McConnon, so it’s just like a party!
The nicest thing is that people also cook the whole meal together, they just take over the kitchen for the day and make amazing dishes from their own countries.
It’s great to see how all kinds of conversations happen over food. It is actually not a new thing; we were reminded again of how nice it is. With people of different religions and such different backgrounds you can find many commonalities around food.
Who is actually coming to the Dinner parties? Do you feel like you are reaching the people you’d like to reach?
So far, we have maybe engaged with 20 people living here in the Direct Provision Centre. Some are part of the team, some just come along for the dinner.
There are so many barriers to come along. The people who don’t come are the ones who are generally stuck in their room. It can be because they don’t have good English, they often are traumatized, they have children to take care of or have experienced discrimination.
There is a mother of a 9-year old boy with autism – she raised the boy here in Ireland – and she manages to come to the dinner, but not much else.
It’s a bit frustrating but we’re starting to try and get through to the people who are more isolated. For example, Fajer from Syria was helping us with translations at our last dinner, which made two more Syrian women take part, who made some incredible food! It was really nice because one Syrian girl who had been to our dinner before came again and was really happy to see other Syrians there.
Are there other ideas you are thinking about to achieve that?
We have some ideas bubbling away. We were thinking a lot about doing something around storytelling as a way of connection and English practice at the same time. That’s also sharing an Irish tradition. With Paddy we have a storyteller and drumming facilitator in the team, so there must be something in there.
We are also thinking of developing a participatory photography project in the future using the principles of Photo Voice.
Then we see that people have particular skills, one person for instance is amazing at sewing. So doing workshops together and learning from each other would be nice.
What has changed for yourself since you became engaged in this initiative? Do you, for example, watch the recent news from Zimbabwe with a different lens now?
Yes, big time. I’ve become more aware of what’s happening internationally. Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Pakistan, Syria. Having heard people’s stories first-hand, now reading and seeing the news, I can relate to it more. It makes it all feel closer, it changes my perspective and we even joined the celebration a bit when Mugabe resigned.
Generally the people that we’ve met have been really interesting and inspirational. Also learning about different food has been great. I have a bit of a love for Maize meal now, known as ‘pap’ in Zimbabwen. I didn’t expect that. Seeing this whole idea also grow and gain a bit of life outside of us is great.
Do you see the idea growing beyond Galway?
Ideally we wouldn’t need to do this exact thing at all because Direct Provision gets abolished. But if it ends in the next years we would still do something similar. The migrant population in Galway have been interested in joining in as well, they also want a space for celebrating and sharing culture.
The cultural aspect could be developed more in the future. I just don’t know what form it would take yet. We’ve got support from Galways City Partnership. They offer mentorship and support in community development.
There are groups doing similar things around Ireland and Europe in general. So what we do is part of a movement that already goes beyond Galway. Examples of similar projects are MASI/RAMSI Solidarity dinners in Dublin, Mosney and Kilkenny, Sligo Global Kitchen, One World Tapestry in Galway and Our Table in Dublin among others.
We would like to share our experience of starting the Melting Pot Luck with people so that they can set up something similar in their own communities. Two locations where this will hopefully happen are Loughrea Co. Galway and Ballaghdereen Co. Roscommon. Friends of ours who have attended the dinners live and work in these areas and have connections with the refugee community there. They thought the idea of bringing locals and refugees together over dinner might improve the social inclusion of refugees and expressed an interest in setting up something similar to the Melting Pot Luck.
We’ll stay in touch with them and support them to do this, it would be great if it takes off in other places. In the future we also hope to team up with other groups doing similar projects around the country, to share knowledge about this kind of work.
What’s your wish for 2018?
My big wish for 2018 is that asylum seekers in Ireland gain the right to work, without restriction. This will have a massive impact on people’s lives, allowing them to be independent, develop themselves, provide for their families and be more connected to the community around them. Asylum seekers want to participate in society, to pay taxes – they are talented, hard working, intelligent people. It’s important to recognize that and not to stereotype people as looking for handouts. I hope that if the Right to Work is fully given then this will start to dismantle the Direct Provision system, leading to a situation where asylum seekers can live independently.
All images above were taken by Avi Ratnayake at the Melting Potluck Dinner Galway on November 25 and provided to us for free. See more pictures on the Melting Potluck Dinner Galway Facebook page.