Food as a Way to Help Refugees and Build Social Solidarity

Can food be used as a way to bring strangers together, if only for a meal or two, and create the beginnings of a new type of community? Penny Travlou, a cultural geographer and ethnographer at the University of Edinburgh, decided to find out. In an interview posted on “Social Innovation Europe,” an EU website, she talks about her experience in co-organizing “pop-up dinners” that bring together immigrants with local Greeks in Athens. The idea is to use meal preparation and eating together as a way to break down cultural barriers and support migrant integration in Greece. 

Travlou’s specialty as a researcher is the collaborative practices of digital artists and practitioners. But recently she has been fascinated with “nomadic co-living communities, hackers and refugees.”  Syrian refugees of course face some very different challenges than hackers, makers and other nomads of digital culture. Yet they both are living a kind of “nomadic transient citizenship” that Travlou believes is changing Europe.  One might say that ad hoc cooperation based on mutual need, empathy and shared circumstances is a big aspect of modern life. 

In developing the idea of pop up dinners for refugees and local Greeks, Travlou had been inspired by Jeff Andreoni of the unMonastery, who had been organizing dinners in Athens for locals and immigrants.  Working with a professional cook, an Eritrean refugee named Senait, Andreoni and Travlou held a dinner for 100 people at a house in Athens.  As Travlou explained:

That made us think that such small-scale events can be a great way to give job opportunities to newcomers -- i.e., immigrants and refugees -- and get them feel part of the Greek society and culture. From that event onwards, we got collaborated with and participated in other immigrant collective pop-up events. In the summer, we set up the African Collective Kitchen “OneLoveKitchen” with a group of cooks from Senegal, The Gambia, Sudan, Nigeria, Eritrea and Ethiopia. We collaborated with the African United Women Organisation and Nosotros: the free social centre.

All our events have been self-organised without any formal funding. We have organised small pop-up dinners in houses and roof terraces, have served food in a solidarity economy festival and have catered for two conferences. Since September when a great influx of Syrian refugees has been arriving in Athens, some of us have also been involved in daily collective kitchens preparing food for a housing squat for refugees and other similar initiatives.

Travlou and Andreoni are now setting up a new project, Options Foodlab, which is a professional kitchen and co-working space for food training.  Travlou said that food is a great way to bring people together: 

What I always say when people ask me why I got involved in such a project is to think of where the words ‘company’ and ‘companion’ come from. They both derive from the Latin word ‘companio’ which means one who eats bread [pane] with you. Thus, food making and sharing is a social act and a means of exhibiting respect for an existing or future relationship of reciprocity. Food making is about hospitality and connectivity. There is not a better way to bring people together: you don’t need linguistic cues to connect with others. With this perspective, we can think food as an object of exchange, a gift that can be shared and exchanged.

An inspiring project!  You can read the full interview with Travlou here.