We’ve all become aware of the advertisements that sneakily appear on our Facebook timelines specifically targeted at us. They can range from weird, to semi-invasive to downright annoying. But occasionally, very occasionally, you come across one that actually deserves your attention. I was idly scrolling through my timeline about two months ago when one of these ads caught my eye. It read; ‘Welcome a migrant to your home for dinner’.
It immediately appealed to me for a number of reasons. Firstly, I love cooking, especially for other people, and I relish the idea of making dinner for a group. I also thought it was a cool, innovative way of connecting with people who are new to Ireland, as it can be hard sometimes for Irish nationals and incoming migrants to meet and mingle, especially for those caught in direct provision limbo. Above all, I saw it as an opportunity to genuinely welcome someone to Ireland by inviting them into my home – something that is generally seen as an intimate affair, that you do only with friends.
Hosting A Welcome Dinner – the Steps
I went on to the website. The website is home to many social innovation projects that you can sign up to follow or to volunteer with, such as FoodCloud and Irish Men’s Shed. I found the Welcome Dinner group, set my location to Galway and signed up to be a host of a Welcome Dinner. There were a few things I was unsure of – how long it would be until I heard back, how many people I might end up hosting, whether or not there was a particular format to the dinners that I would have to adhere to. But I figured these were the minor details. I was sold on the bigger picture.
Within a couple of days, I received a mail from my ChangeX co-ordinator, Katie, and soon after, spoke with her on the phone. ChangeX try to match hosts and guests based on basic common denominators, and Katie asked me if I was comfortable hosting males, females, a family, or if I had any preference. I appreciated this, as it gives you the opportunity to have input into who you host, which is important when you are hosting people in your own home.
A fortnight later, Katie contacted me to say she had some interest from two young women staying at the Direct Provision Centre in Salthill – Wendy and Felistas from Zimbabwe. She provided their mobile numbers, and I called them to arrange a date. We spoke briefly on that first call, just introducing ourselves and discussing any dietary requirements. (Note: If you want to host a Welcome Dinner in your community or would like to attend register your interest in getting started at: https://www.changex.org/ie/unitedinvitations)
Welcome Dinner Nerves
I can admit freely that I was nervous before the dinner. I have no problem talking to new people – part and parcel of my job is being able to chat to people easily, especially in awkward or difficult circumstances. I’ve met people from all over the world, and there’s always some common ground to be found. But there was something a bit different about this – there wasn’t going to be a big group of people. It wasn’t as if we could chat for a while and then drift away if conversation dried up. My housemate was joining us, and as I went about preparing the food, we hypothesised about how the evening might go. Would there be language barriers? Cultural differences? And the biggest stress of all, would they like my food?!
My worries were quashed almost instantly when I went to pick the girls up and we greeted each other with warm embraces and wide smiles. Wendy and Felistas were friendly, funny and talkative, and there was no shortage of conversation throughout the night. We ate, we drank wine and we talked about their country, our country, work, music taste and anything else that came up. If ever there was a moment of awkwardness, it came about only when conversation veered towards the circumstances surrounding the girls leaving their home. It was clearly an upsetting topic for them, and we could tell they didn’t want to discuss it in too much detail. So we would leave it be, and move on (“So, back to what we were saying about Rihanna..”).
Cultures Coming Together
After I dropped the girls back later on, I sorted through some strong emotions that the evening had provoked within me. Most predominantly, I felt shocked at hearing first-hand their description of life in a direct provision centre. Direct provision centres are accommodation services for asylum seekers while they wait for their applications to be processed. They provide board, meals, utilities and an allowance of €20 a week. Asylum seekers may not engage in employment while they are in direct provision. There is no set time for how long it may take for an application to go through – at the time of our dinner, Wendy and Felistas had been here for four months. They spoke of people at their centre who had been there for over 8 years. They shared rooms with up to 3 other people. Many of the others did not speak any English.
There is nothing for these girls to occupy themselves with in their day-to-day lives. Nothing. No cooking facilities, no training courses or skills classes, (bar some extreme basics, like how to open Microsoft Word), no opportunities to integrate into the community. These are two educated, intelligent young women, used to working, studying and having a social life. Can you imagine how it must feel to come from that to having nothing to do all day, every day, with no defined end in sight?
“What good is the world’s best welcome if it’s only extended to select people?”
I felt disappointed. I had asked the girls if they agreed with this supposedly unanimous global opinion that Irish people are friendly and welcoming. They didn’t. Since arriving in Ireland, they hadn’t felt like recipients of that welcome. Perhaps I was being naive, but this actually surprised me. And it really disappointed me. What good is the world’s best welcome if it’s only extended to select people?
I also felt what is probably best described as guilt. Without sounding too ‘Gap Year’, it was an eye-opening evening with regard to privilege. I’ve been to different countries in Africa, and I’ve been a witness to scenes of poverty, noted the discrepancies in wealth between these countries and Ireland, but sometimes, when we are travelling, I believe that we can almost dissociate from the reality of situations we find ourselves in, the divide in wealth we observe, because we are ‘on holidays’. It’s not our real world; we’re eating and drinking and wearing and seeing things that we never would at home. We don’t have all our first-world comforts with us. And we can trade in any unpleasant thoughts or upsetting encounters for souvenirs at duty-free, and fly back home.
I’m not saying that we’re not affected or that we don’t care about these things – quite the opposite is true – but more that we don’t always acutely feel this massive inequality, and it’s easy to just leave behind any guilty thoughts we may have when we return home.
But when these thoughts are juxtaposed with our stable, comfortable lives, as they were when I invited these two lovely girls into my home, the extent of our privilege is laid bare. I am not regarding Wendy and Felistas as poor or underprivileged. As I said, they are educated and had good jobs in their country. But yet, as we chatted, a subtle difference in rhetoric gradually emerged. I became very aware of my iPhone, the two Macbooks on the coffee table, the three cars parked outside the flat. Of how my housemate and I could talk about the many different countries we’ve travelled to. Of how I’ve never been forced to leave my country, to leave my family behind. Of how I’ve never had to face the crippling mundanity and uncertainty that these two girls are now facing.
But amongst these challenging emotions, there were positives. I felt happy, the content that comes with an evening spent in good company. I’d held a successful dinner party; nothing burnt, the wine didn’t run out. It was a unique evening – a nice change from going to the pub for a drink or wasting hours on the couch watching Netflix. I’d gotten to meet two interesting and amiable people and I thoroughly enjoyed the evening, and I like to think that our guests did too.
“It’s not hard. It’s not weird. It’s not awkward. It’s entertaining and it’s rewarding and it’s kind.”
And I felt motivated. To take the less pleasant feelings from the evening, and do something with them – be that hosting another dinner, and trying to prove that the Irish welcome is indeed one for people of all nationalities and races, or getting involved in campaigning for better conditions of direct provision, or by supporting initiatives like Our Table.
I have stayed in contact with the two girls, and I hope to host another dinner for a different group over the next couple of months. I would 100% encourage anyone who thinks they might be interested to get involved and host a dinner of your own. It’s not hard. It’s not weird. It’s not awkward. It’s entertaining and it’s rewarding and it’s kind. All you need to do is bring an open mind and an opened bottle of wine!?