Why I'm Hosting Dinners for Refugees at My Home in Berlin
Food creates an invisible bridge between people, and my biweekly refugee dinner series aims to connect Berliners to the migrants making a home in Germany.
In 2015, Germany opened its borders to over one million refugees. As of January, there were 3,200 refugees arriving in Germany each day, on average. Many of them come from Syria; others come from Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries. And twice a month, some of them end up in my kitchen.
I first had the idea to create a refugee dinner series last November, after seeing thousands of migrants crowded into the refugee camps, in government buildings or Berlin's closed down Tempelhof airport. The camps are cramped and noisy, with a limited number of bathrooms and often no kitchens at all. There are lines for government-issued clothes and food, for paper and stamps, for doctors when someone's child is sick.
Many Berliners have found ways to lend a hand: Local volunteers have stepped in to distribute food and help refugees find shelter; some of the city's nightclubs have raised money to sponsor the cost of housing, food, and German language classes; and a few young Germans even started a website to connect migrants who need housing to Berliners with vacant rooms.
But for me, I knew my contribution had to be related to food. When I immigrated from Hungary to Germany, I worked as a line cook for a while, and eventually started a supper club in my apartment in Berlin. I'd invite locals to sign up online to come over for home-cooked Hungarian meals. As a newcomer to the city, those dinners really made me feel like a part of the community—I had the chance to meet new people, to build networks, and to blend my culture with the local one, all through food.
Food, indeed, creates an invisible bridge between people. It brings us back to our basic humanity, and a shared meal gives people the space to talk and build empathy for one another. And so, along with my friend and documentary filmmaker Boryana Ivanova, I created an online sign-up inviting Berlin's refugees to come over for dinner.
Five Syrian women signed up for our first dinner in January. We met up at a Turkish market and shopped for ingredients for a menu they created: chicken with Arabic spices, nuts and rice, lamb, potatoes, several fresh salads, aubergine hummus, beans, and bread. We cooked for hours, and the amount of work they put into the meal was amazing. There were language and cultural barriers, but two members of the group who speak both English and Arabic helped translate.
We'd invited local Berliners to join us for the meal and donate money to cover the cost of the ingredients. And when we all sat down to eat, hesitantly passing plates around to our new friends, it slowly started to feel like any other dinner party. There was laughter, phone numbers were exchanged, and it felt like the first step toward integration—five new friends, multiple cultures, one delicious meal.
We've had seven dinners since then. On these Saturdays, the air is filled with the scent of Arabic seven-spice, fresh parsley, and fried almonds. We usually have about 15 people sitting on the floor, on pillows around the provisional table we set up in our living room. The house is always loud with conversation—most of it in Arabic, but a swirl of German and English too.
That's not to say there aren't moments of cultural awkwardness. During our first dinner, I tried to convince two of the Syrian women to sing for our guests, because they sang so beautifully while we were cooking. I'd assumed they refused out of shyness, but I later realized that their religion doesn't allow them to sing in front of men who are strangers. I learned to say "ana asfa"—Arabic for "I'm sorry"—that night.
During another dinner, I had to stop a German guest from clinking his wine glass against a Syrian woman's glass of water. The woman, who was Muslim, didn't drink alcohol and wasn't used to even being in the same room as people consuming alcohol. It was a big step for her to have come to an event where we drank wine, and something that seemed like second nature to the German man had been a cultural affront to her.
After seven dinners, I've learned to pause and ask what's OK to do and what isn't—even with things that seem obvious. And besides what our Syrian guests have taught me about culture, I've learned a lot about cooking too. The women have showed me how to roll a little amount of rice and minced lamb into pickled grape leaves, and how to chop parsley small enough for the tabbouleh. In my kitchen, they're the experts; I hardly cook at all, and they often assign me the task of grinding pepper or doing the dishes.
Little by little, our guests open up about how their lives looked before they came to Germany—how they'd loved their houses and neighborhoods, how difficult their journeys have been, and how they fear that the ones left behind aren't alive anymore. Sometimes we all cry together in the kitchen, but they're the first to wipe their tears, stand up, and go on with cooking.
Nobody knows what lies ahead in Germany's migrant crisis. There is no individual who can help everyone, but having just a handful of Berlin's refugees in my kitchen feels like a way to extend the meaning of "home" to some of them. The dinner series hasn't just been a way to sample new cuisine, but to create new conversations and new friendships. Next week, in an effort to share my own immigrant story, I'm making a Hungarian menu—the Halal version, of course.
Follow Anna Gyulai Gaál on Twitter.