Germany threw open its border gates in 2015 to hundreds of thousands of refugees, and many inittially heralded the "open borders" policy as a model that the rest of Europe should emulate. A year later, though, the honeymoon period has faded and Germany, like other countries across the continent, are grappling wih issues of integration, social and cultural tensions, and institutionalized racism in a society that still bridles at multicultural plurality. One initiative led by volunteers in Berlin though, is starting small. As Germany's open borders begin to shutter, they've launched an open kitchen.
The program has brought local refugees into Berlin's vibrant urban culture through a classic ritual that translates easily into any language: breaking bread together. Collaborative cooking workshops and public dining events have provided a platform for learning new skills, and just learning about new neighbors. Refugees from Afghanistan, Sudan and other strife-torn nations are forming a new melange on the city's culinary landscape.
Ricarda Bochat, a coordinator of the initiative that runs the Open Kitchen project, Give Something Back to Berlin (GSBTB), says the idea took on a life of its own after it became clear that newcomers didn't need any coaxing to reconnect with their communities through a shared meal:
[W]e started before the new wave of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq arrived. What we noticed however was that the concept was very easily adapted to the new arrivals. We saw the two groups that we were working with merge really well on a number of occasions. We noticed how helpful it was to people new to the city to speak to others who were in a similar situation before them, to exchange stories and to get insights and tips on how to navigate the complicated German bureaucratic system.
The program has been operating principally as a casual cooking group for a few years now, inviting newcomers to bring their recipes and lead a group in preparing the meal. They've also catered local events and dabbled in marketing their food professionally. Other initiatives have cropped up to offer job training and other activities that help migrants get a foothold in the restaurant business. But mostly, people just want to get together and find a safe space to be themselves.
The project has also elucidated some of the social deficits and barriers that have held back integration. Part of the cooking project's appeal is that it provides an experience that feels like an actual home, not a camp: for newly arrived migrants and refugees, the process of applying for asylum can last months, delaying plans for securing jobs, permanent housing and forming connections in their host communities.
"Many people," Bochat says, "despite receiving their papers are still 'stuck' in refugees shelters that are large scale camps, lacking fundamental necessities such as privacy and safety." They also lack kitchens, and the enthusiasm with which many of the program's participants have thrown themselves into making homecooked meals at the meal sessions shows how something as simple as a stove and a dining table can mean the difference between an institution and a real home.
Bahjat, a young man from Syria who arrived in Germany in October 2015, spoke in a local media interview about how different the open kitchen felt compared to the antiseptic refugee camps he had been wending through until he resettled:
The cooking group was the first place for me outside of immigration buildings and waiting camps that made me feel like I belonged. It was the first place outside of a humiliating system built by State institutions and civil society that made me feel like myself again. ...The cooking group is a place where you can go back to being the person you were before here. It was a very creative experience... I got to know so many people who turned out to be friends... It is simply a place to talk easily with anyone who attends, to laugh, speak your mind and to leave with very deep comfort.
Of course, one small group of volunteers can never be enough to address the complex needs of the migrant population, and Berlin itself is something of a liberal island in Germany's maelstrom of complicated political attitudes. An insurgent far-right movement has jutted up against progressives and intellectuals who have dominated the political mainstream, yet today even liberal politicians are bristling at the cultural and racial frictions that have erupted with the influx of immigration in recent months. Berlin is feeling more precarious these days. Then again, for some of the newest arrivals, the city has provided some modicum of stability and solace after escaping from a land of trauma. Bochat observes:
Many members of our social cooking group have had a slightly better start to their lives in Germany and Berlin. We found that the people joining us for our social cooking days were much more socially mobile and independent, often because they arrived here without families or young children, because they had better knowledge of the English language and were perhaps a bit more confident to step out into unknown territory. In the first year of arriving here, many of our members, mostly young men, found flats or at least better accommodation than the shelters, started internships or jobs and in some cases even started relationships. I'm not saying, obviously, this is all due to the cooking group. But what we did create was a sense of family, a home away from home. Which means that people support each other, on the hunt for flats, or with visits to German officials.
Many will never feel completely at home in a new country, after being ripped by poverty and conflict from their communities. But it never hurts to know that even in an unfammiliar place, there's a place at the table that someone saved for you.
--July 14, 2017