Once a month as many as one hundred people converge on PeaceMeals to share a traditionally cooked meal in the welcoming space of Melbourne café, South of Johnston. Tonight's menu is Nepalese; previous meals have ranged from Indian to Somali.
Founded in 2015 by former café owner, cook and painter Kate Shelton, PeaceMeals' steadily growing community of new migrants, refugees and established Australians are there to share food, stories, experiences, successes, hardships and, most of all, cultural understanding.
Keeping the focus firmly on great food and conversation with strangers, PeaceMeals sees many new faces with each gathering, and has hosted more than 2000 people for dinner. With no need to sign up and no ongoing time commitment it is, Shelton believes, a simple way to engage with people outside the scope of your everyday life.
"Trying to convince someone to come along and mix with all these strangers is daunting – the hardest thing is to turn up as a stranger. But it's so welcoming because everyone is a stranger. It's about socialising out of your comfort zone,” she says.
Providing a space for people to communicate outside of their financial, geographical or political bubbles is the central concept behind PeaceMeals, while food is the vehicle to make it happen – because as far as Shelton’s concerned, talking is the simplest way to form bonds and appreciate each other. "Here you pass food to a stranger and you have to share the food at the table like a family. It creates an automatic connection,” she says.
For each PeaceMeals event a family from a refugee or new migrant background shares their culture's cuisine by preparing a feast for the evening; tonight it’s Raj Sharma and Susan Dahal. The evening is a celebration for the popular couple, who have recently been granted a “Safe Haven Enterprise visa” after years in offshore and community detention. Now able to work and live in Australia for the next five years, the two have prepared a vibrant traditional Nepalese meal of rice, roti, chicken curry and white radish pickles to mark the occasion.
"Things like PeaceMeals help as people come together and learn about us and actually hear what is going on," says Sharma. "When I came here and talked about myself, I spoke of the detention centre in Broadmeadows – many people were totally unaware it even existed."
After dinner Sharma gets up in front of the crowd and explains that he and Dahal have founded a Dandenong-based Nepalese food business named Everest Momos Catering, talking about their upcoming fundraiser and launch party to the attentive audience. To Sharma's relief, there are many offers to purchase tickets, while others show their support by lending their skills, time or networks to spread the word.
PeaceMeals founder Kate Shelton has spent much of her life growing and supporting various communities like this one. It started in her childhood, spent on a 2400-hectare property in northern New South Wales. Home to Kate and her eight siblings, there was also an ensemble of workmen to feed, and from an early age Kate was her mother's "right hand in the kitchen."
But it was Shelton's transformation of Canberra's Benedict House that cemented her love of food and community building. Buying the property in 2004 she spent the better part of a decade transforming the historic convent into a food and cultural destination, employing 22 people to run art programs and serve home-style meals and cakes. Then, in 2014, she made the move to Melbourne. Knowing few people in her new city, she says that in the beginning PeaceMeals was as much about about her finding a community to be a part of as bringing the widercommunity closer together.
PeaceMeals works on a pay-what-you-can model with the funds raised going towards purchasing the ingredients and paying the cooks. Donations also support many of the individuals within the group – at this event PeaceMeals is raising funds to put towards buying a work van for Raj and Susan's new business, as well as flying them to Singapore to visit their two eldest children, who they haven't seen in five years.
PeaceMeals has played a role in the success stories of many of the event's regulars. Sayed Abdullah Rabbani has long been a support of PeaceMeals after first being introduced to the organisation in early 2016. Since his resettlement in Australia from Afghanistan in 2012, it had been a struggle for him and his wife Sheena Rahimi, who were both studying to be lawyers, to find paid work in the legal industry. Shelton invited the couple to speak on this issue at an event, which appealed greatly to Mary Stephen, a key figure in the running of PeaceMeals and a community engagement officer for local law office Lander & Rogers.
Despite only just meeting the couple, Mary offered Rahimi a role at the firm, helping her gain invaluable experience and helping her secure a job working in family violence cases at another company. She has since returned to Lander & Rogers to work on pro bono cases in the local community as a paralegal. Similarly, Rabbani took on work experience with Lander & Rogers, which helped him gain a consultancy position at another practice. Recently, he was offered a graduate position that will see him take on three clerkship roles at three leading Melbourne law offices.
"It's a great achievement," says Sayed. "I think in a refugee's life there are few moments that really matter and bring a positive change in your life, and this was one of them that really mattered to me. But there are also many, many other people that have benefited from PeaceMeals."
Also in the crowd tonight is Alek Nyok, who has been involved with PeaceMeals since the very beginning. Now a board member, Nyok still enjoys helping out in the kitchen and forging new connections with the growing South Sudanese community.
"I really liked the concept of PeaceMeals because Sudanese people don't often come out of their shells, interact and break down the barriers," says Alek. "I feel like the world is finding new ways to divide us, but PeaceMeals brings people together. You come here and you forget about what's on the news – you forget about it because you get to meet the real person."
Photographs provided by PeaceMeals.