Tell me the food of your childhood – the meal that comes to your mind’s eye. Mine is carrots and chicken, with a mountain of mashed potato.

Dinner was usually at the same time every day but it didn’t matter if it varied by ten minutes, or one hour. It was cooked by my parents in our kitchen and we ate it at the table together. If I didn’t like the bit of parsnip in my veg I didn’t have to eat it, and I could get something else. Dinner was a personal thing.

Al Dente. Photo credit: EvelynGigggles (flickr)

Al Dente. Photo credit: EvelynGigggles (flickr)

These details may sound trivial, a kind of “so what?’’ narrative. But none of these details are trivial when they are taken away from you.

Some people do leave these norms behind. They shed a bit of themselves and seek to continue living their lives in another country. These norms should grow back, it’s only temporary. They’re leaving because they need to, for their own sake or for their family’s. Perhaps it has become clear that “they’’ are what we call asylum seekers. Direct provision is the temporary norm we give them.

Designed to be a short-term temporary solution while papers are processed, it is often not the case. The process may take years, with those it is supposed to help becoming psychologically and socially marginalised. Childhood is also put on hold.

On the upside, where there is institutional practice there is also community action. Its tools are a knife and fork, and people’s shared love of food. Globally and locally, people have merged to bring some normality back to these people’s lives. In Ireland there is change brewing, and we are all invited to bring a dish.

One Table

One Table is one such form of community action based in Galway and shaped by the hands of Elena, Megan and Avi. It took its inspiration from a variety of initiatives and actions for social change that have roots in towns and cities all over the world. In its early stages at the moment it is one voice of many motivating social inclusion. On a bright, blue Galway afternoon Megan, Avi and I sat down with some tea and cake. I listened while they spoke to me about direct provision in Ireland, and how food can build bridges between people.

Megan & Avi

Megan: We got the idea because we took part in a project called Welcome Dinners that was set up by a group in Ireland called Change X. They’re encouraging social change in Ireland through different projects. It was inspired by a project called United Invitations in Sweden – the premise is you invite refugees, asylum seekers, and newcomers to the town into your home for dinner. You sign up online, you get paired up and they come to your house. So in Ireland that took the shape of people in direct provision centres being invited into people’s homes for dinner. We took part in that in Galway. We had two women from the direct provision centre come here and we had a really nice time, just the four of us. We chatted and made connections – they were telling us about their experiences in direct provision and we felt very affected by that. Even though we knew in theory what was happening, we hadn’t actually spoken to someone in the situation. So we thought we want to do something to help people not feel so alone and not feel so separated from society, to help people get to know Irish people.

Avi:  Through our conversations prior to this, what was evident was people in the direct provision centre were for various reasons, a little alienated from the people in the surrounding area. And the people in the surrounding area are also alienated. They don’t know anything about each other because there is no interaction. There’s nothing happening that will put the people together.

Megan: There’s a disconnect.  And a lot of misconceptions on both sides as well.

Avi: Also, the ways people socialise are very different. Take for example the Zimbabwean ladies. One of the biggest ways that they do this is cooking, inviting people and sharing the food. Compare that to how people socialise in Ireland – that’s mainly in pubs. The two things don’t necessarily go together financially as well as from a social point of view. People in the centre get very little money and cannot afford going to the pub. They’re stuck out in a corner for a good while, and the folks out here carry on socialising none the wiser.

After inviting the ladies to our first welcome dinner we invited them again, knowing that they didn’t get to use kitchens in their direct provision centres. There, they can cook small dishes with a rice cooker but they have no access to a kitchen. We invited them to another potluck, a smaller version of it at our home – we provided the materials, they cooked and we also cooked, and we invited some other people who came along with their own dishes. Everyone contributed. That was a great success. Everyone had a great time, so we decided to scale that up and that’s where One Table began. That’s how we started looking for a space with a kitchen.

Megan: It was a very emotional kind of thing. Also, we have experience with organising projects, and we’d tend towards that sort of approach. Elena from Atlantic Language organises intercultural projects there, so we spoke to her about it and she was really excited about doing something. So we thought “we need to find a space, we need to find a kitchen where we can have big pot luck dinner –extend the Welcome Dinner’s idea’’. She accelerated things a lot because she’s really enthusiastic. She found a space in Salthill, the perfect space in a GAA club, and we went there and said “ok, we’re going to do it’’. We haphazardly cobbled it together from that point.

And what obstacles have you encountered so far in setting up One Table?

Megan: The main obstacle at the moment is the fact that we need to have public liability insurance in order to run our first event. We thought we’d be covered by the GAA club’s public liability insurance. But it’s good in a way because it means that we have to formalise ourselves.

Avi: Organisations that give insurance on one day or one off events basis are quite costly, so we hadn’t factored that in. We did think of it, but not to the amount that it was. Another small obstacle in terms of time is the formation of a charity which is a really long drawn out process taking up to 9 months in order to get funding. Charities are sometimes  needed quickly to serve a purpose, and that drawn out process can be a hurdle for some. We’re okay with it, we have the luxury of time.

as of end of February 2017. Data from RIA 2017 report

Megan: We’d initially thought of being a loose association where it would be quite informal. But we have to formalise ourselves a bit more in order to raise money to get the insurance, we have to be official. We were going to need to do that at some point as we fully intend to keep it going, – we want to have monthly events and grow.

We’re going to do a crowd funding campaign using the iFundraise platform, which is made by someone in Tuam. It’s a fairly locally generated platform, and you can just email them and say “we need to get our funds so far by Monday’’ and he can get that to us. It means we can be really flexible with fundraising. Because there are a lot of people in our networks that want to give maybe €5 or €10 to us, so it’s great that we can capitalise on that, thanks to the internet.

Let’s say I’m someone living in direct provision – what do I need to do to get involved, and what do I need to bring?

Megan: We’re not setting up an event page for the first one, because we’ve got a capacity of 40, and secondly we want to keep it like a dinner party for the first one so that it’s not too big and that people feel comfortable and that it’s a nice atmosphere. If people want to come they have to email us and we’ll let them know if there’s space, and we can know who’s cooking what.

Asylum-seekers by country. Data from RIA 2017 report

Avi: Because this is the first one it’s like the pilot so we’re keeping it small for the first round, then after that we can iron out any problems if there are any. After that we’ll open it up a little bit more.

Megan: We’re saying to people who are interested that they just need to think about what they would like to cook, for example their favourite food from back home, and see if they want to collaborate with other people to cook that. Tell us the ingredients and we’ll source them. They just have to bring themselves at around 3pm to the space which is up the road from the DP centre to prepare the food. I foresee it being a nice time of cooking together, chatting, having the craic and listening to music. There are some women who are really passionate about Zimbabwean music and Nigerian music so they’re going to provide that and maybe show us a few dance steps. And then members of the public who we will have invited are going to come at about 6pm and bring their dishes, and then all the food comes out and everyone sits down and eats. A big messy family dinner scenario – that’s how we foresee it.

Do you think that there’s a lack of information out there for people about the experiences of those in direct provision, or do you think people don’t try  to look into it?

Megan: The latter. I’ve been doing research into the conditions for people in direct provision in my  community psychology class, and there’s a huge amount of information out there. There’s a lack of accessibility to it. I think one of the barriers to people accessing information is misconceptions around people who seek asylum, a fear of the other, and some prejudice that’s partly understandable – and partly malignant.

There’s a lot of stuff washing around in the culture about immigration, so maybe these things are calcifying on some people as an anti-immigrant idea that might make them not engage with those stories. People just switch off when there are labels used like ‘immigrant’, ‘refugee’, ‘asylum-seeker’, and those labels sometimes aren’t useful. They can have negative connotations, and they also serve to ‘other’ the people and distance them, marginalise them. Framing stories about those people in a more human way – these are just people, as opposed to ‘they are their papers, they are their status’ – that’s something I’d like to see more of.

Avi: Perhaps it’s the way it’s being framed. There are examples of it in newspapers, but how much does the public really engage with that article?  People aren’t engaging with it. A few people I’ve spoken to didn’t even know what it was called -“direct provision, oh is that what it’s called?’’. They’re in a part of town or somewhere else where it isn’t obvious.

Megan: They talk about it like it’s a prison. It’s really affecting when you’re there. When you look at cultures in Africa, food means so many different things. We were sitting here having our pot luck dinner and one of the women was describing to me what an African woman is expected to do in terms of cooking, and she was saying it not as if it was a chore. She was saying “I’m an African woman, I know how to gut a goat and I know how to cook and make use of every single tiny bit of it”, and that’s a huge part of their concept of themselves as an effective person, and of someone who can nurture and care for others. That’s totally stripped – on a factual level you see that they can’t cook, but when you drill down into it you see what cooking and food taps into. It’s about identity and autonomy.

Source: Nasc, January 31 2017, parliamentary question from Deputy Mattie McGrath

Avi: Sure, when you come over to a new place you have to expect some sort of change, but there are some key components of your identity that you have to hang on to and you have to try and practice in some way. As it stands in the conditions that they’re in they can’t practice most of those things. This is an idea to facilitate that.

An article in the Examiner last year claimed that nearly 3,000 people entered Direct Provision in 2015. Do you think Direct Provision works?

Megan: There needs to be some sort of system, yes. We need to provide accommodation for people who arrive in the country while their papers are being processed. But I think this system is very damaging to people’s psychological well being. People are institutionalised, they’re marginalised and socially excluded. They’re not allowed to work and they don’t have the money to engage fully in society.

Avi: There’s different restrictions in different centres – on travel, even within the country, and curfews too.

Megan: You’re at the behest of whatever centre you’re in. Some centres would kick you out if you don’t sign in every day.

Megan: I would like to see an end to Direct Provision. I would like to see people housed more in line with the way things are done in the UK – there are initial reception centres, but then people receive social benefit and they’re able to live in normal houses, and they’re able to work (perhaps with limitations on hours).

Avi: They want to contribute, they want to be involved. Some of the women are attending courses so that they can bring themselves up to speed on the language. Coupled with minimising the problems with the direct provision centres, other things need to open up like access to college and courses, internships and volunteering.  Also sponsorships in the form of corporate social responsibility. Say for example there’s a language barrier – the school can sponsor a number of seats that will enable people to come into school and mix with the others, as well as make up the numbers in a classroom environment.

Megan: Third level as well; you hear stories of young people in Direct Provision where they do their leaving cert and they get good points. But then they can’t afford to go to university because they have to pay international fees.

Megan: An issue coming up a lot now is people trying to make the transition out of DP; there’s a lack of support for that transition, so if there is enough engagement with people while they’re in the system it’ll make that easier for them. At the moment people are just left alone. As soon as they’re out of DP they’re left to their own devices. If they don’t have social ties with people it’s hard, because Ireland is such a tight knit community.

Avi: It can be quite difficult to break into it.

-You said on the Facebook page ‘burst that bubble’ – what do you mean by that? Do people in Ireland have a comfort zone?

Megan: It’s not just in Ireland. It’s natural – you have your comfortable group of friends, you tend to spend time with people who have similar opinions to you or come from the same ethnic background or town. When we had the women come over the first time I was really struck by how refreshing it was to talk to someone completely different. They had this really bubbly banter between them and they were open and affectionate. They were hugging me, and I thought ‘this is such a relief’ (not that there’s something wrong with the way Irish people do things), it’s just a different way of being. One of the women is  Jehovah witness, and I’m your typical lapsed catholic atheist sort of person, and she doesn’t judge me for my hedonism. Making friendships across those barriers is really good.

Avi: On that note of bursting the bubble, it’s not an easy task to step out of that. I remember how we were feeling that first time we invited them. But you just have to take that little step past that and that’s the hard part. Then it’s fine. Things were perfectly normal. I think in your head, if you have ideas like this, you might have barriers that are bigger than they actually are.

Megan: The value of bursting your bubble is that it makes the social fabric of your world richer. When you make connections with people who see the world in a different way. You get access to all those different ways of seeing the world, and things change. Like how you see your town. I’ve started to see Galway in a different way. It depends, some people are more amenable to that kind of thing than others, but I think everyone can benefit from it. You don’t have to be best friends, it’s just having a chat with someone.

Would you like to see One Table grow and spread beyond Galway?

Megan: It’s not an original idea. We’re replicating something that’s being done around the world, just another iteration of it. It’s something that could happen in every town if there are people interested in initiating those links with DP centres.

Avi: We were taking inspiration from things around us. On Facebook and through other friends, we’re seeing similar sort of things happening in other cities. People are taking inspiration from each other, and it’s like a natural organic reaction to a problem that’s been presented. One thing we shouldn’t think is “oh other people are doing it so we don’t have to’’ and sit back.

Do you think people naturally do want to get involved but don’t know how?

Avi: We did think about including an information pack (when we get everything sorted out) on how to get things started. Each town will have a different set of problems, but there will be a core set of things that you can get started with. For example forming a community group, getting insurance, finding a community space, knowing who to contact for advice. Get talking to people, don’t feel too protective over your idea – the idea can only improve by talking to people

M: It’s been a real learning experience for me. I’ve done some organising in the UK, and since I’ve come back to Ireland I haven’t done anything, so I’m learning about the systems in place that I didn’t know existed and that we’re starting to connect with. Galway Intercultural Forum help acclimatise the Syrian refugees who come to Galway, so we’re going to access their support. There are organisations in the background that are working to do things. We’ve reached out to them and they’ve been really positive so far. And Galway 2020 has been a good resource.

One Table

Tell me about your first event  on 22 April.

Megan: We’ve a capacity of 40, which I hope to fill but I wouldn’t mind if it was a little bit smaller – it’s about quality not quantity. We’ll have 10 people from the DP centre. We don’t yet know how 10 people cooking in one kitchen will work so we’re keeping it small. It’ll be a mix of our friends and people who have contacted us via the Facebook page. A lot of the guests who come will be people who are working or volunteering in the area or community engagement, development and the arts.

Avi: Initially people we know. And some people who showed interest during the fundraiser. This is the pilot. The folks from the DP centre who are getting involved will, assuming it is all successful, go back and cascade out the good information and it will grow from that end as well.

Megan: And we want to encourage people with kids to bring their kids as well. They’ve got their kids in the same room as them in DP, it’s a bit claustrophobic and parents don’t get to have an evening out. So the kids can, one imagines, play together and the adults can have the craic.

Statistic source: RIA February 2017 Report

What’re you going to cook for the first event?

Avi: I’m thinking about a Sri Lankan dish, called kiribath, a cooked down version of rice which is allowed to set and you can cut it into pieces. It can be eaten with something savory or sweet. And maybe another curry dish.

Megan: I don’t know what I’d cook, something Irishy. Avi’s a better cook than me. Maybe a nice pot of stew.

Avi: It can be anything really, if you’re not that good at cooking just throw some leaves together and you have a salad. The first mini pot luck we did, we had 3 or 4 Zimbabwean dishes; a quiche, a pasta dish, a curry, rice and dessert.

Megan: Zimbabwean dumplings are a thing of pure unadulterated joy.

Final words?

Megan: Pot luck means to throw different ingredients in a pot and hope for the best.

Avi: Variety is what makes the world go round, that’s what pot luck is for me.

Megan & Avi

If you would like to read more about One Table, or contact them follow this link  https://www.facebook.com/onetablegalway/?ref=br_rs

Or send them an email: onetablegalway@gmail.com

 Now would be a good time to go put the kettle on, prepare a pot of tea and watch this moving TED Talk from Michael Gavin about why cultural diversity matters.