More Than Just a Meal11 October 2016
As I sit on the tram heading home I have my headphones in, but I’m not listening to music. Instead I listen to the recording I took earlier of an interview with Nirma Murugamoorthy: one of the chefs involved with Tamil Feasts. Tamil Feasts is a social enterprise developed by CERES (Centre for Education and Research in Environmental Strategies) located in Brunswick East. I pause after he says for the second time that he has been seeking asylum in Australia for six and a half years.
I think about that time— how achingly long it is. It’s long enough for someone to complete high school— its long enough for someone to grow up. Enough time for a baby to learn how to sit up, walk, talk, read and write. It’s long enough for someone to get married and divorced. I think about how many children grew up and how many couples married and divorced each other since Nirma arrived in 2009. How so much has happened in those six and a half years, yet he still hasn’t achieved refugee status.
But despite this, if you attend one of these Tamil Feasts on a Monday, Tuesday and now Friday, the quote “home is not where you are from—but where you are wanted” adequately sums up the warm atmosphere. Nirma, along with Sri, Niro and Nigethan can be seen cooking happily in the kitchen while program coordinator, Molly Haglund, bounces from table to table to talk to diners and make sure everyone is enjoying their three-course traditional Tamil meal.
“I guess I’d really been drawn to a project that wasn’t so much about charity or sort of— a lot of projects have a take on them where there’s this idea of ‘helping.’ Helping is incredibly important but, these people seeking asylum within the community have a lot of gifts and talents to offer themselves.” Molly tells me this as we sit in the storage room at CERES on milk crates when she gets a break from all her “running around” as being the project’s coordinator.
She draws on a strong point. In recent years, the support for asylum seekers and the protest of offshore-processing has grown rapidly. Social media campaigns launched by the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre resulted in hashtags such as #letthemstay #bringthemhere and #rightrack, and have dominated social media platforms. The issue of offshore detention and the government’s response to ‘illegal maritime arrivals’ has drawn discontent from many facets of Australian society. Protests and rallies have become rife, especially among younger generations. These protests promote a strong message and demonstrate that the issue has strength in numbers.
However what differs between campaigns such as this and the Tamil Feasts enterprise, is that asylum seekers are directly involved and are the face of their own campaign.
The Tamil Feasts enterprise has elements of self-determination, and it’s proven to be successful. The program celebrated its first birthday earlier this year, and has added Friday nights to its weekly dinners. Molly explains the thought behind kick-starting Tamil Feasts, in that it would be “an opportunity for [the men] to showcase their talents… Sri, Niro, Nirma, and Nigethan are all just really special individuals in their own right— they all have a great sense of humour.”
People who attend the dinners know just this— Sri, Niro, Nirma and Nigethan take breaks from cooking the dinners to come out and talk to each diner. They are friendly and are genuinely interested in you and where you are from. Talking to them shows you that this project has benefitted their lives— they smile and are grateful to have this opportunity to share their culture and their story. The media now reports the horrific stories of self-immolations, child abuse, sexual assault and abhorrent living conditions that have somehow escaped the harsh secrecy of Nauru, yet we seem to have become desensitised to it. Limited proximity to these abuses of human rights often makes it easier for us to acknowledge briefly, and then forget as we go on with our day.
But talking to these men face-to-face and hearing them one-on-one is a sure way to change that.
When I spoke to Nirma, he described being in detention and feeling “very very sad and depressed.. Frustrated.” Nirma is from an eastern region of Sri Lanka known as Batticaloa, and is part of the ethnic minority of Tamil people. A group who have been persecuted in Sri Lanka since 1948 when the country gained independence from colonial giant, Britain. This persecution ignited a civil war in 1983, which would last until 2009. However, the ramifications are still being felt today— boats carrying Tamil asylum seekers continue to attempt to make their way to Australia despite our government’s harsh stance on ‘boat people.’ Asylum seeker policy is an issue that has being gaining tract for the last decade. Nirma explains that part of his frustration while being in detention was that “governments.. policies keep changing.” Nirma as a result has bounced around Australia to different detention centres. Starting at Christmas Island, then being moved to Villawood, Adelaide and Broadmeadows.
Now he is apart of the Tamil Feasts and CERES community along with Sri, Niro and Nigethan. “We have many many volunteers— these girls at the detention centre were visiting us.. they know about our situation— and people like you from media and advertising give us opportunities.” He believes the best part about being involved is having “many visitors who come and [who] are sharing stories—it’s good things for us.” Molly elaborates on this, “Because the men who are the cooks are still currently seeking asylum, when you know, being released from detention, you’re in a totally new place for a really long time. You know, language, finding a job, finding a home. These things are natural challenges for anyone when they come to a new place, and it was meant to be an opportunity for them to use their talents and put on a couple of one-off feasts but they were so popular — it eventually evolved into a regular sort of event and yeah we’ve been holding them for over a year now.”
Both Nirma and Molly highlight how effective this program is for both the men and the diners in stating this. It can be difficult to get individuals with apprehension towards ‘queue jumpers’ as the media often dubs them, to alter their mindset. For some, multiculturalism rather than assimilation seems anti-Australian. A view gaining popularity as evidenced by the 2016 election, which saw Pauline Hanson’s notorious One Nation party win four senate seats.
However, we are often quick to accept different cultures through their food. Food is universal and bridges perceived gaps between cultures. Tamil Feasts is held on every Monday, Tuesday and Friday night. With Monday nights having a meat curry with vegetarian and vegan options, Tuesdays being exclusively vegetarian and vegan and Fridays having both meat and vegetarian options. Diners can come with their friends and try the ever-changing menu, which includes an entree, a main and desert for $30— all traditional Tamil food. For a $5 donation, you can bring a tupperware container and take some home as the men usually make enough for leftovers.
It’s a warm, friendly and happy atmosphere complimented with delicious, fragrant food difficult to find outside of Sri Lanka. Tables are decorated with laminated signs saying “welcome” and diners are invited to take photos to post on social media and use the hashtags #morethanjustameal and #realaustralianssaywelcome.
Even those apprehensive towards asylum seekers would find it difficult to find an issue with Niro, Nirma, Sri and Nigethan being here in Australia. They only have good things and positivity to offer us.
Molly encapsulates the environment when she explains Tamil Feasts’ main purpose, “it’s creating space for them to [showcase their talents] and for people engage with that and for people to feel really connected to issues with seeking asylum— the challenges, the heartache that goes with those challenges and it provides a space for people to show that they care and to say welcome, in a really cool way— through food.”
In a society where this issue has previously divided and angered people, the plight of asylum seekers has now become a vague sing-song in our ears. Tamil Feasts is a refreshing, successful response to what we all know is a complex and enduring issue facing the world. It truly is more than just a meal.
To support this enterprise, you can make a booking through http://tamilfeasts.ceres.org.au