The Berliner building bridges by hosting refugee dinners in her home

Desperate to help Syrians fleeing war in some small way, a cook and writer has encouraged Berliners and refugees to break bread

Kashmira Gander
Tuesday 10 January 2017 10:38 GMT
The dinners also give Berliners a chance to learn about their city’s new residents
The dinners also give Berliners a chance to learn about their city’s new residents

Ashamed by the government’s response to the refugee crisis in her native country Hungary and desperate to help the situation in some small way, Berlin-based writer and semi-professional cook Anna Gyulai Gaal looked to food as a starting point. To build bridges between locals and newcomers in the German capital, she decided to invite refugees to host dinners in her home.

“I know how it feels to be a newcomer somewhere, not knowing the language, not having a grasp of the culture,” the 30-year-old who also runs a Hungarian kitchen told The Independent. Estimates suggest that since the war began in 2011, at least 200,000 Syrians have entered Germany.

While reporting on refugee camps, Gyulai Gaal learned that most forms of emergency accommodation in Germany do not have kitchens. She found this heartbreaking.

“Food is such an easy and great way to connect, why not to open up our home?” she thought.

Twice a month, Syrian refugees cook for and dine with guests who pay €38 (£33) per head. After Gyulai Gaal has paid for ingredients and taxes, the rest of the money goes to the chefs.

The exchange enables the cooks, all of whom have been women so far, to indulge in a taste of home while Berliners learn about their city’s new residents and encounter new flavours. Since the first dinner a year ago, about seven women have formed the core group of cooks.

“Some of the dishes they cook were entirely new to me. The stuffed mini-courgettes and aubergines, called Mehshi, or the Kebbah, the deep fried bulgur balls, filled with minced lamb and walnuts came as a surprise with their rich flavours. Or my personal favourite, the south Syrian chicken-onion pie, the Rgaga."

Gyulai Gaal admits that, at first, there were some awkward moments between the cooks and the guests, but that she has worked to iron these out. Over time, relationships have flourished.

“Some of them spoke good English when we met, some nothing but Arabic. As their German is developing, totally new aspects of their personalities are opening up. It’s amazing. Eventually we learn that we not all that different.

“We’ve had many special moments in the past 12 months. Sometimes it can be emotional, sometimes rather cheerful, it depends on the guests too and on the chemistry between all of us.

“One those moments was the visit of a Greek lady and her daughter who actually helped the arriving boats to shore in Greece a couple of months earlier.

“It was a very touching moment. The daughter, living in Berlin, has come to most of the dinners ever since. She is a new friend to all of us.

“If the women feel comfortable enough, we will talk about the terrifying events of their lives. What they had to leave behind, how worried are they for their loved ones that are still in Syria, how uncertain their life was a year ago. They often show photos of their family members. Some are dead, some are still alive in the middle of the war, and about some they have no information. They just have hope.”

But Gyulai Gaal is careful to ensure that hardship isn’t the only topic of conversation, to save the dinners from becoming crisis porn.

“I am always trying to lead conversations into directions other than just “How did you get to Europe? Was it scary?’ because these women have so much to offer and their journey is just a little part of it. I’m trying to avoid the ‘disaster tourism’ at our dinners.”

Yet, Gyulai Gaal doesn’t underplay the significance of her small effort in the face of an overwhelming crisis. “These dinners are more than just a meal for everyone involved. I think both parties have an image of each other and these dinners help to understand that these images are often false.

“I do believe that by offering my home and my time and a little bit of money two Saturdays a month, I make life a tiny bit better, a tiny bit more cheerful and purposeful. Not only for the lives of the cooks but my own and often some of the guests, too.”

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