|(A tribute to Penny Elsley who initiate this project in the Newton, Sydney).
“We arrived as strangers and departed as friends.”
On Friday evening the 21st March (Harmony Day) our Build the Bridge Volunteers, in partnership with Sydney non-profit organisation Joining the Dots, hosted the South Australian launch of ‘The Welcome Dinner Project’. Our SA dinner coincided with a large gathering and exhibition in Sydney’s Martin Place that was featured on ABC News the following evening.
In essence, Welcome Dinners are designed to provide a space for newly arrived people and other Australians to meet over dinner conversation in the comfort of their own home. The aim of the dinners is to create a platform for meaningful connection, sparking friendships between people of diverse cultures who are living in close proximity to one another but have not had an opportunity to connect in a supported environment.
Initially, I was unsure how many guests we’d attract given this was our very first dinner. However, with a couple of days to go I became more worried about whether we would have enough space to accommodate the swelling numbers! Clearly, there is a strong need and desire out there in the community for people to connect, and these kinds of structured dinners provide the perfect platform to do so.
In total we had just under 30 guests in attendance, consisting of individuals and families from countries as diverse as Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, PNG, Sierra Leone, Burundi, Ireland and of course, Australia.
The night began with some formal introductions and the sharing of the word ‘welcome’ in each of the native languages. It never ceases to amaze me how such a simple concept of welcome can be understood so universally, but often not lived out as authentically here in Australia.
A key focus of the dinners is the sharing of a meal, with each guest invited to bring a plate of food from their home culture, or something they simply love to eat. This was a huge highlight of the evening, not only because of the delicious foods many of us tried for the first time, but importantly, because people really lit up when sharing about their dish. You could sense people’s pride at being able to share something that was so special to them. Also in doing so, any initial nervousness or hesitance within the group completely dissipated. Food is one of those things that is just so universal and so sacred, that no communication barriers can stop it from bringing people together.
One of our final activities on the night was collating people’s feedback on their highlights from the evening. Overwhelmingly people loved “the many lovely foods”, “listening to people’s stories” and “meeting many nice new friends.”
Often the nature of conversation in Australia around newly arrived people can be quite negative and insular. However, what became so clear from our very first Welcome Dinner was that the things that we share are so much more important than the things that make us different. We need to change the conversation.
Finally, we are very much looking forward to organising more dinners in the future, and if you would like to get involved – either as a guest, sponsor or a host – please feel free to drop me a line.