The refugees that feed us

From intimate dinners in a small Neukölln flat, to packed streetfood markets in Kreuzberg, Berlin's volunteer and refugee communities are coming together through a basic mean of cultural exchange – food. But is it real or just “disaster tourism"?

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Haroun Ali from Sudan cooks a Syrian-Sudanese fusion dish for the Open Kitchen’s stand at Bite Club, summer 2016.

How can a crisis turn into a food trend? Through charity! With more and more refugees coming to Germany, several Berliners had the same idea – to connect and help out through food – and were shocked by their sudden success. But is it real or just “disaster tourism”?

Amid the crowd at Markthalle IX’s weekly street food market, one of the stands is offering exotic, homey dishes cooked by refugees from Africa ánd the Middle East. Today, it’s Sudanese beef stew or Syrian chicken with rice, each for €5. A crowd of tourists take selfies with the cooks: they want to tell their friends back home about the “delish Syrian street food we just tried in Berlin”. It’s a very Berlin zeitgeist experience brought to you by the volunteer organisation Give Something Back To Berlin (GSBTB) and its Open Kitchen project.

Rewind back to 2013, Oranienplatz. At that point, up to 100 asylum seekers were camping on the Kreuzberg square in protest of Germany’s asylum laws and their circumstances. That’s when UK expat Lorna Cannon’s international circle of friends decided to get involved and make food together with the refugees. The weekly gathering turned into a proper initiative as more and more people volunteered, and the Open Kitchen project was born. “We wanted to break refugees’ isolation and create a platform to meet new people and get to know other cultures – and cooking was just the perfect way to do that,” explains 32-year-old Ricarda Bochat, the current manager and coordinator of Open Kitchen. After the camp was evicted in April 2014, the group moved to the occupied Gerhard-Hauptmann- Schule on Ohlauer Straße; the eviction of refugees from that school in early 2015 was followed by BBQing in Görlitzer Park. With the wave of Middle Eastern asylum seekers and German Willkommenskultur later that year, the Open Kitchen project and its parent organisation GSBTB got bigger and busier, with more refugees and more volunteers eager to join the foodie fun.

“There were new recipes to cook, new customs to appreciate, new names to learn…” says an enthusiastic Bochat.

And more media attention, too. The group soon got invited to cook at larger events, and was offered spots at street food markets like Bite Club. The income goes partly to the cooks and partly to the non-profit. “It’s quite a difference to be cooking for 200 people, after cook- ing for 20. But it’s great to be in such a professional environment, and we’re having lots of fun.” For some refugees, it’s also led to job opportunities cooking at Syrian or Lebanese restaurants on Sonnenallee.

Bochat is still marveling at GSBTB’s success. The weekly cooking group was followed by other satellite projects like an art programme for refugee women and children, a music school, German and English lessons, even yoga. The organisation now has 10 employees and has received awards including the “Europe Prize Blaue Bär” from the Berlin Senat and European Commission in Germany, as well as the European Council’s Diversity Advantage Challenge Award. “Such a simple idea, and we’ve achieved more than any of us could have imagined!”

Open Kitchen is not the only project that grew out of the chaos of O-Platz. The non-profit group Über den Tellerrand was founded in 2013 by four master’s students who also cooked with refugees at the camp. They turned their experience into the cookbook Recipes For A Better Us – Cook Beyond Your Horizon, a collection of dishes, photos and stories of asylum seekers from all over the world published in 2014 in both German and English. Ten thousand copies were printed, with a follow-up released last September. Now, Über den Tellerrand offers free community cooking events like “50 Shades Of…”, where participants explore the different usage of an ingredient in several countries’ cuisines (January’s was lentils), ending with a communal meal at their space in Schöneberg’s Roßbachstraße. Other projects include a community garden, movie and music nights and even a choir. To help finance their organisation and further bring Berliners and refugees together, Über den Tellerrand offers cooking classes taught by refugees for a €75 donation.

The classes are held twice a month in a large, professionally outfitted kitchen designed and built by a group of architecture students from Berlin’s Technical University. Tutors, who are mostly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan with a few from Africa, teach 12-15 people to make a three-course meal from their home country. “There is a huge diversity of guests – we get locals, tourists, students. It’s great to see how people eventually loosen up, eating together, listening to traditional music, dancing…” says Agnes Disselkamp, the organisation’s fundraising and project coordinator. “I really think that it’s a great trend. People learn to cook new dishes, meet new people, meet refugees, and often come back as volunteers. Everybody has to eat, after all!”

The team agrees that one of their biggest successes was that after a cooking class, one chef was offered a job in an Arab restaurant in Kreuzberg, where he’s worked ever since. Somar, a young Syrian with a background in gastronomy, also found a job thanks to the non-profit – as a barista in a Neukölln café. “When I arrived to Berlin last summer, I was quite lost. Über den Tellerrand was incredibly helpful because I made my first connections there; it gave me back the feeling of being connected, valuable and stable.” Reflecting on his days teaching the cooking class, he says, “People did ask a lot of questions – they wanted to know all about my journey and the war at home. They’re just curious, and often it’s the first time they meet a refugee, so I don’t blame them for wanting to know! I didn’t mind.”

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Cooks and guests eat together at Anna Gyulai Gaál’s Refugee Dinners. Photo by Viktor Richardsson

Plenty of other organisations have formed around refugee food in Berlin. Kreuzberg’s Bantabaa FoodDealer offers refugees cooking courses so that they can find restaurant work more easily; their training facility in Falckensteinstraße doubles as a restaurant where you can get coffee, tea, cakes and warm African dishes for a very decent price, as well as by-donation communal dinners once or twice a month. Meanwhile, Sharehouse Refugio, a shelter and project space in Lenaustraße operated by the Kreuzberger Stadtmission, houses a ground-floor café where refugees serve espresso drinks and homemade cakes for only a few euros. With its spacious rooftop terrace, the building also provides space for dinner parties and gatherings; both Give Something Back To Berlin and Über den Tellerrand have hosted events there.

Refugee Dinners started on a much smaller scale, and a bit later too. Anna Gyulai Gaál, a Hungarian journalist, arrived in Berlin around the same time as the dozens of thousands of refugees. In January 2016, she decided to invite a group of Syrian women to cook their traditional meals in the small kitchen of her Neukölln apartment. Guests book a spot online and dine together with Gaál and the cooks, sitting on cushions around an improvised table covered in warm and cold dishes – from tabbouleh and aubergine salads to roast chicken and kibbeh. After covering expenses, whatever is left of the €35 per person gets donated to the women. “While I was reporting on refugees, I saw that the shelters didn’t have kitchens, and that they missed their own food so much. That’s how the idea was born. I didn’t even know about any other cooking projects back then,” Gaál says.

On top of the donations, the five or six women who come to Gaál’s home get to cook in a proper kitchen, make new contacts and friends, and even take leftovers back to their husbands and kids. And these Muslim women, some of whom are married to conservative husbands and might normally shy away from social interaction, especially with men, get a unique opportunity to socialise outside the shelter.

A tour guide asked whether her 15-member group might be able to visit a refugee shelter after the dinner, so the tourists ‘could see how they live’.

Following extensive press coverage, including the New York Times, Gaál’s dinners have grown increasingly popular amongst tourists, perhaps because of their intimate size. “I wanted to keep it small; it’s never more than 10 guests, because this way, people really get to talk to each other,” says Gaál, who is now struggling to meet demand even with dinners twice a week. “But some- times you have the feeling that all they came for is to get a whiff of the ‘refugee experience’. And when the guests are not there for the right reasons, it’s my responsibility to handle that…” When a tour guide asked Gaál whether her 15-member group might be able to visit a refugee shelter after the dinner, so the tourists “could see how they live”, she turned them down in outrage. But unde- terred by such incidents, and encouraged by the popularity of her dinners and the feedback from her cooks, Gaál has grown more ambitious. She’s now starting her own association and website, Refugee Dinners. “With this we will be able to help connect other potential hosts and cooks too. Now there’s no excuse.”