Around dinner tables across Australia, a vital social movement is firing, fueled by the economy of goodwill. Asylum seekers and refugees are being offered a seat at the dinner tables of everyday Aussies. International students are finding their voice, sometimes for the first time, with English speaking families. Newly arrived Australians are discovering what it means to be truly accepted in their new home.
The Welcome Dinner Project has a simple recipe – a host, eight established Australians, eight new arrivals and two volunteer facilitators. Everyone meets at the host’s home and brings a dish to share. The outcome of these home dinners, of which there have been 180 since 2013, is just as simple – people become connected.
Compassionate, worldy, socially considerate super-woman and mum-to-be, Penny Elsley, is behind this fast-growing movement. After embarking on a global journey to find out how she could make a difference in the world, Penny returned to Australia and started the not-for-profit organisation Joingingthedots. It wasn’t until years later, over lunch with two Sudanese refugees that the idea for The Welcome Dinner was sparked. “These women said to me that no one had ever invited them into their home. No Australian people,” Penny remembered. It was a shattering thing to hear, especially since one of the women had been in Australia for 10 years, the other for 5 years. Penny kept hearing this same sentiment from established Australians too, that they’d been looking to befriend newly arrived people but they didn’t know where to meet them. They didn’t know how to approach them and were worried about doing something culturally inappropriate. The idea for the Welcome Dinner Project became, in Penny’s words, “a bit of a no-brainer”.
We caught up with Penny to hear more about The Welcome Dinner Project and how it is reaffirming that, as she says, “Despite what we’re seeing emphasised in the media, Australians are an extremely welcoming people”.
Why are these dinners important for our communities?
Because at the root of all social issues in disconnection. My understanding from my journey in the world is that what sits beneath so many social issues is isolation and disconnection from one another. The Project is a way to bridge disconnection but also it’s a way for us to build understanding and cultural awareness in a really comfortable environment – around our dinner tables. The main thing that we’re seeing over and over again at every dinner is people saying ‘this is so refreshing, this is what I’ve been looking for’. At least one person at every dinner is saying ‘this is the first time I’ve been invited in anywhere in Australia’.
What is the significance of sharing a meal together?
Hospitality is an age old tradition and it belongs to every culture in the world. It brings us back to the very basic common humanity of we all eat. We all love to share food and in Australia we have this unique tradition of the potluck, but in other countries that’s quite foreign. Initially it can almost offend to ask someone to bring a dish to share, because it’s just not part of their culture. In their culture, if you invite someone to your home you supply everything. Having everyone bring a dish brings equality. It’s a beautiful thing to have a potluck menu because it’s a very levelling experience. Whether you’re on a six figure income or you’re on $11 a day as an asylum seeker, we’ve all contributed the same.
What is the most memorable dinner you have attended?
One of the very first dinners was very interesting. The host was a Chinese-Australian, born in New Zealand, and we brought a group of Tibetan refugees who were very newly arrived to Australia, some of them only here for 6 weeks. When they got there and saw that the host was Chinese they got kind of freaked out. I said to them, ‘Look, it’s different here. Chinese people are part of Australia like everyone else and they want to welcome you to their home’. As the night progressed it was quite amazing the transformation these people shared around forgiveness. To have that experience as they arrived in Australia was very powerful. It could have taken them a long long time to see a different side of the Chinese. That was quite an extraordinary one.
What is the greatest challenge in coordinating the project?
As is the case with all not for profits, we are constantly trying to find funding and sponsors. But then there are a lot of barriers that we are overcoming and that’s the idea of this Project – that we overcome not just racism, but barriers in language, or cultural difference. There are a whole lot of barriers that we have to overcome to actually get people to just show up, sometimes even finding them transport to get to the dinner. Quite often we pick people up to take them to a dinner. If we don’t do that, the barriers never get overcome.
Can you share some of the most rewarding feedback you have received from new and/or established Australians?
The rewarding thing for me is continuously hearing from newly arrived people that they feel more confident now. That once they’ve broken the ice they feel they can actually go and talk to Australians and people out in their community. Some have never spoken to an Australian person before, they just stay in their house where they’ve been placed and not spoken to anybody except those from their own language group. I think the main thing for both newly arrived and establish Australians is just a confidence to connect and talk to each other.
At what point will you be satisfied that The Welcome Dinner Project has achieved its purpose?
Our dream is to be seeing a dinner every day and for it to become an Australian icon, something that Australia is known for. It will take years, but we want to see the flow-on where people’s minds are shifted in their voting and the politics we’re voting on. Ultimately, we do want to see that systemic shift but we want it to happen through the change of heart and mind in people from their own connections.
Why should Australians take part in The Welcome Dinner Project?
Because it will be an experience like none you’ve ever had in your life. That’s what we keep hearing, that it’s so refreshing.
What’s next for the Welcome Dinner Project?
Very exciting question! At the moment we are prototyping, which means trying various different versions of the dinner and we’ve been focussing completely on working together with our Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander community. Just yesterday we had a beautiful brunch with Aboriginal elders together with international students. It was quite extraordinary. Today we have our first Welcome Dinner in a school so we’re very excited about starting to launch into schools as well. There are a lot of schools that have people from a refugee background in particular and they’re having trouble trying to get the parents to meet each other because of the language barriers. Also going global is part of our dream and we have some interest from the UK and also from Italy and a few others.
To join a community or home Welcome Dinner in your area, or to become a sponsor of the Project, visit joiningthedots.org