Welcome Dinner Project connects Australians with refugees

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Welcome to our world: Welcome Dinners unite people through the simple act of sharing food.
Welcome to our world: Welcome Dinners unite people through the simple act of sharing food. Photo: Marina Neil

For centuries, strangers have bonded over the simple act of sharing food and swapping stories. The Welcome Dinner Project uses this ancient notion to unite Australians with refugees, migrants and students newly arrived to the country.

The project is an initiative of Joining the Dots - a not-for-profit agency founded by Penny Elsley in 2010. Each Welcome Dinner pairs an average of eight Australians with eight newly arrived people. Everyone brings a dish to share, and an evening of storytelling, eating and friendship-making ensues.

Participants can register online to either open their doors or participate in a Welcome Dinner at someone else's home.

"The Welcome Dinner Project arose because I was hearing from refugees and migrants that had been in Australia for five years - sometimes 10 years - and no one had ever invited them into their home," Elsley says.

At the same time, Australians were asking how they could connect with refugees. "I was just blown away by that," Elsley says. "Sydney is of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world, and we had willing, good-hearted Australians that couldn't find an avenue to connect with newly arrived people. So we thought, 'What better way to bring people together than through food?'.

"It's a beautiful thing to see people experiencing each others' traditional dishes," she says. "There's just so much energy around the food."

Sausages are a part of the Australian experience.

She jokes that she's put on about 20 kilograms in the past 12 months.

More than 1000 people have participated in Welcome Dinners across 30 Sydney suburbs to date. "It was a terrific experience," says Paul Metcalfe, who hosted a dinner with six Tibetans from the Dee Why community and their families. Metcalfe's teenage children chose to cook sausages. "I asked the kids why they chose snorkers [sausages] as their dish," he says.

"They said it was because sausages are a part of the Australian experience - you play sport when you grow up and wherever you go there's a barbecue somewhere. So that was the story they were able to tell to the Tibetans."

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Iranian refugee Hamed Alekhamis says he has met many warm, kind people through his involvement. He also has a new love of Mexican food after attending one of the dinners.

"It was awesome," Alekhamis says. "The flavours are very similar to food from the south of Iran. It just reminded me of home." Alekhamis now works a volunteer photographer for the project.

Although there is no shortage of people volunteering to host a dinner, funding for staff to help with daily organisation has been harder to come by. "Each Welcome Dinner takes about 10 hours to organise," Elsley says. "We pride ourselves that the dinners are accessible to people at every level. If participants need assistance with transport, child-minding or interpreters, we provide that."

For further information about how to register or donate to the project, visit joiningthedots.org.