“This is not an idea we just came up with. We were asked for it. And it’s worked,” says Penny Elsley. She is the founding director of Joining The Dots and one of the many initiatives that comes under its not-for-profit umbrella, The Welcome Dinner Project.
The idea behind Welcome Dinners is straightforward but its effect has been profound. The organisation arranges dinners, hosted by locals, to bring strangers together over a meal. Guests are made up of eight established Australians and eight newly arrived people; asylum seekers, migrants, refugees and international students.
“What better way to bring people together than over food?” says Elsley. “We provide a platform where people feel safe to come together. Hospitality is something we all have in common. At these dinners, we connect people through their common humanity so we get beyond the usual, ‘where do you work’, and ‘where do you come from’ to things we have in common as human beings.” Elsley has noticed, for example, that “where do you work”, can be an intimidating question to ask a person who is not established yet, or who, like some asylum seekers living in the community, don’t have the right to work.
Because of the way Welcome Dinners are run, language barriers and any fears around cultural appropriateness aren’t an issue. There is a volunteer facilitator at each event, so people are free to meet each other in a semi-structured way. All on the same level.
At each dinner there are what Elsley describes as “a few rituals” to break the ice and put the group of strangers at ease. The dinners are pot-luck. Every guest brings a dish representing their country or culture. At the start, the facilitator will ask each guest to introduce their dish and explain why it is significant to them. “It’s an amazing process because from that, everyone has an insight into everyone else, and even the shy people have said something,” says Elsley. “It opens the space in a beautiful way. And those people who have never stepped inside someone’s home in Australia before – never mind cooked for somebody else in this country before– get something from this that is really quite unique.”
The project started when Elsley was running a leadership program with professionals living in Sydney. She was also doing community work with asylum seekers and refugees, and noticed that both groups wanted to meet one another, but found they had no access.
“I was hearing from refugees and migrants: ‘No one has ever invited me into their home, I’ve been here five years, 10 years, and we’d love to meet local Australians’. Australians were saying to me: ‘Can you introduce me to a refugee or an asylum seeker?’ And I was absolutely blown away by that: these people were seeking that opportunity, in one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world.”
Elsley believes there a number of barriers to these groups meeting each other and interacting as part of daily life. In Sydney, people tend to live in pockets. Suburbs, generally speaking, are divided into where established Australians live, and where other people live. She also says language can exacerbate this. But the biggest barrier, according to Elsley, is “fear of the other and of what we don’t know about the other.”
There are currently 1000 people on the waiting list for Welcome Dinners in Sydney. “People are asking for this because they feel isolated. Both local people and newly arrived people feel isolated in this city.”
Elsley also says there is such interest in the project because people are genuinely fascinated by each other, and these dinners allow people to make the most of the diversity in their city. Both groups also want to respond, in a practical way, to a political and cultural situation that is currently very bad for refugees, asylum seekers and many migrants.
The project is run entirely by volunteers and is currently funded by two crowd-funding campaigns and some local council grants. But what the organisation really needs, says Elsley, is corporate sponsorship.
“We’ve had an international student say: ‘For the first time I feel like I don’t miss my family’. One refugee said, ‘This is the first time I feel free in this country’. It’s just a dinner, but it means a lot to people.”
If you are interested in hosting a Welcome Dinner, donating or becoming a facilitator, visit joiningthedots.org