Three nights a week, four Tamil asylum seekers get together in a Melbourne kitchen and put on a feast for the public.
They cook a three-course meal of traditional food – curries, bhajis, chutneys – for their diners, and spend the night trading stories about their lives in Sri Lanka, their time in detention, and the new lives they are creating in Australia.
The chefs, Niro Vithyasekar, Nirma Murugamoorthy, Sri Ganesh and Nigethan Sithirasegaram, each spent over six years in Australian detention centres, all ending up at Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation (MITA) before being released.
It was at MITA that they met Dori Ellington, a regular visitor to the centre who worked with not-for-profit centre and community park CERES, and bonded over a shared love of food and cooking.
When the men were released in 2015, Dori encouraged them to hold a few one-off dinners at CERES, in the Melbourne suburb of East Brunswick, showcasing their culture and traditional cooking.
The community response was so positive that the one-off nights turned into Tamil Feasts, a social enterprise showcasing stories and food three nights per week.
Tamil Feasts project co-ordinator Molly Haglund tells SBS that in the year that the project has been running, community support has continued to grow.
“People know it’s a really tangible way to support people who are recently settled asylum seekers, while also just eating absolutely delicious food,” she says.
“It’s a great way for the community to engage with this group of people we hear so much about, generally from a quite negative perspective – to really meet people who are seeking asylum face to face, and hear a little bit about what their experience has been.”
Life after detention
Tamil Feasts chef Niro tells SBS that when he was released from detention, he struggled to find a job, and the community dining night was a great way to get on his feet.
“I’d been in Australia nearly seven years, but I didn’t have any experience or qualifications,” he says. “I went to some interviews and they asked why I had no experience after being here so long, and I told them – I’ve been locked up all those years.”
Each of the chefs, including Niro, left Sri Lanka during or just after the country’s civil war. “Tamil are a minority people in Sri Lanka, and we have lots of problems – we don't have equal rights in Sri Lanka,” says Niro. “That’s why we came here – we are only seeking asylum to save our lives.”
Niro came to Australia by boat, a “very, very hard journey” that took two weeks. “I am very proud to say that I am a boat person,” he says.
When Niro’s boat landed on Christmas Island he was taken straight to the detention centre, which he likens to a prison. “We were locked up with electric fences, and our walking distance was very limited,” he says. “Most of the time we felt very bad and stressed, it was very hard.”
Fellow chef Nigethan travelled to Australia by boat a few months later, and his experience echoes Niro’s.
“We spent 46 days on the boat, and it nearly went inside the sea twice, sinking,” he tells SBS. “The sea was rough and we couldn’t sail properly, the fuel nearly ran out, and the food was gone.”
He also ended up in the Christmas Island detention centre, and says that his six years in detention still affects him every day.
“It was very, very bad,” he says. “Many people in there hurt themselves, and there was lots of bad things. We could never sleep very well.”
“I wouldn’t hope for anyone to spend one day in a detention centre, it’s like torture.”
Nigethan’s wife and son are still in Sri Lanka, and he hopes to be able to bring them to Australia one day.
“My family gave me lots of hope when I was in detention – they kept saying to me that one day I’ll get released, and I have to stay strong.”
“When I left my son he was nearly three years old, now he is 11,” he says. “My son tells me many times, ‘I want to hug you,’ but it isn’t possible,” he says. “At the moment we can’t bring my family, but I really, really hope one day.”
Building a new life through feasts
Each of the four Tamil Feasts chefs are on bridging visas, and are still waiting for their visa applications to be processed.
Niro and Nigethan say that Tamil Feasts has not only helped them gain experience and make a living after detention, but has been an avenue to create a new life.
“I now have freedom – I’m like a normal person, and my life has totally changed,” says Niro.
“People like our food at Tamil Feasts and I meet a lot of new people and build up new friendships,” he says. “Slowly I am developing a life here.”
Nigethan talks to his family on the phone every day, and says that hearing their voices and running Tamil Feasts helps him forget the reality of waiting for a visa.
“We are cooking our cultural food, talking about surviving in detention, talking about our stories,” he says. “It is really helping, it is really good. I am very thankful.”
Tamil Feasts are held every Monday, Tuesday and Friday nights. Bookings can be made via their website tamilfeasts.ceres.org.au
If you would like to volunteer with or support Tamil Feasts, get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org