Food, storytelling and cultural diversity are powerful partners that can promote social connections for refugees and asylum seekers living in Australia.
Here are a few of the standout initiatives across the country that use food as a foundation to advance the wellbeing of refugees.
1. Share a meal, share a story
During Refugee Week this week, the Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA) tapped into the transformative potential of food and storytelling with a special initiative, ‘Share a meal, share a story’.
The initiative offered support to individuals, community groups, families, schools and workplaces across the country to host culturally diverse food events that foster the sharing of refugee stories.
RCOA estimates that, by the end of Refugee Week on Saturday 22 June, over 200 events in rural, regional and city locations will have been held to recognise the contributions and life experiences of refugees living in Australia, from Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria to Burma and Sudan.
“It’s important for people from refugee backgrounds to share our stories. People think they’re about being saved but they’re not, they’re about survival."
Flora Chol, a Melbourne-based writer and spoken word artist who came to Australia from Sudan as a refugee, is one of the many individuals who got involved in a food-based Refugee Week event in Melbourne.
“It’s important for people from refugee backgrounds to share our stories,” says Chol. “People think they’re about being saved but they’re not, they’re about survival.
“Through stories, we can teach people. They can learn about what it means to leave your homeland against your will and have to come to a new place and learn everything again.”
2. A Tamil feast and low-cost food for refugees
Mums4Refugees is a grassroots network of 5,000 mothers and carers throughout Australia and New Zealand who work towards the compassionate and dignified treatment of asylum seekers and refugees.
The organisation’s Melbourne chapter is teaming up with CERES Tamil Feast as part of ‘Share a meal, share a story’ to host a Tamil dinner on Friday 21 June at 7pm at CERES Community Environment Park, Brunswick East, Victoria. Tamil chefs will serve a biodynamic Tamil mutton and lamb curry, and vegetable curries to raise money for the cause.
The non-profit also regularly runs a mobile food pantry for refugees and asylum seekers, called Mamma Penny, at the Sydney-based Addison Road Community Centre in Marrickville, NSW. The van enables people in need to buy fresh food – fruit and vegetables – and toiletries for just $5. The van also provides a playgroup for kids and a child minding service.
National Convener of Mums4Refugees, Dulce Muñoz, tells SBS that delivering justice for refugees means providing economic dignity, food safety, and self-determination.
“We also provide a space for people to meet, to talk, to share stories,” says Muñoz. “We learn from each other and create a community. And that community advocates for their own rights and dignity, based on their needs and lived experience.”
3. Catering, with love
The Erskineville NSW café, Parliament on King, has a catering social enterprise arm that is run by asylum seeker and refugee chefs. Together, the team cooks home-style dishes from their countries of origin such as Burma, Iraq, Sri Lanka, Somalia and Pakistan.
Menus span vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free cuisine and dishes can include anything from a vegan Burmese noodle salad to Persian adas polo (Persian-style rice with sultanas and fried onion).
"In the kitchen there’s a spirit of friendship it’s a happy place and it’s this that makes everything we make a little more special.”
“Everything is carefully and thoughtfully made; it’s true and authentic to the way they make it back home,” the organisation says online. “…In the kitchen there’s a spirit of friendship it’s a happy place and it’s this that makes everything we make a little more special.”
The café, Parliament on King, also runs an initiative to train asylum seekers and refugees in the basics of hospitality to get them work-ready.
4. Growing and selling fresh food has changed these refugee’s lives
Green Connect is a social enterprise based in the Illawarra NSW, which aims to tackle the issues of unemployment and food waste by creating food and farming-based job opportunities for refugees living within the community.
The social enterprise operates a productive 12-acre permaculture farm on an urban piece of overgrown and forgotten wasteland behind Warrawong High School.
The farm grows chemical-free fruit and vegetables that it sells to restaurants, hotels, cafes, caterers and individuals across two local council areas. It also sells free-range pork and eggs, farmed from their pigs and chickens.
The former refugees who work at Green Connect learn gardening and horticulture skills so that they can gain meaningful employment.
In 2018, Green Connect employed over 100 former refugees and young people in the area. Staff and volunteers grew and distributed 20,628 kilos of chemical-free food and kept more than 2,650 tonnes of waste out of landfill.
Visitors can tour the five-year-old green farm and order food online. To find out more, visit Green Connect online.
5. A welcoming community lunch in Sydney's west
Each fortnight in the western Sydney suburb of Auburn, anywhere between 80 and 350 refugees, people seeking asylum and volunteers come together to do two main things: eat and have fun.
Community Kitchen is a regular social day held every second Wednesday, from 11 am to 2 pm, for refugees and people seeking asylum.
At each event, members of the community lead the kitchen to cook meals for guests. This is typically followed up with other social activities like dancing, cultural workshops or arts and crafts.
Supported by Settlement Services International (SSI), the food event aims to forge community connections and reduce social and cultural isolation among refugees. In the five years since the initiative started, the kitchen has served over 18,000 meals.
“It is a welcoming place where community members from a range of different backgrounds meet and learn from and about each other,” a spokesperson for SSI tells SBS. “Interfaith and intercultural dialogue between guests has led to enduring friendships being formed.”