By Sujatha Spaapen
Cuisine as a medium connecting the refugee diaspora with host communities seems farfetched. However, recent developments in the field of gastrodiplomacy show that culinary values can alleviate disputes, fostering cultural, economic and political relationships. Strengthening the relationships between these protracted communities highlights a country’s cultural values.
Prolonged conflicts over the last decade have displaced many, posing huge humanitarian challenges. International communities have provided such early-response tools as water, sanitation, hygiene (WaSH), shelter, food, health and protection. Although these are pivotal measures, humanitarian work still lacks the grasping of well-grounded societal challenges that arise from this displacement.
Social tensions in countries that have high refugee settlements may breed resentment between the host communities as well as the refugee diaspora. There is presumably an ill-equipped integration system or limited capacity to respond to a crisis in an effective manner. Under these circumstances, cuisines take on a commanding role mediating between host and displaced communities. It is a dynamic form of communication with a language composed of its own grammar and syntax. As the oldest form of diplomacy, food can be a bonding tool used to persuade, cajole and convince.
A humanitarian capacity
A country’s soft power arises from the attractiveness of a country’s cultural values, intellectual capital and constructive foreign policies. Food has been used as a diplomatic tool since ancient times, but the recognition is recent and conceptualised as gastrodiplomacy. It is a tool of soft power, a means to engage, promote and influence others through food.
The refugee crisis has brought about a new concept of how food can be used as an instrument for conflict resolution, especially to cross battle lines in social conflicts. In times of people fleeing from oppression, food is often perhaps the only tangible remnants of displacement. Food memories are difficult to erase. Memories are enriched with “home cooking” using ingredients that make a “national dish”, bonding to history.
Gastrodiplomacy endeavours to strike the emotional connections of sharing food, a “tender-minded” type of public diplomacy. More precisely, it relies on creating mutual understanding through contact hypothesis. The notion that food is a powerful stimulus for gathering people – engaging in discussions, learning and teaching – leads to the sharing of cultural practices. Gastrodiplomacy fosters dialogue between these conflicted communities through collective actions – communal eating or commensality has the potential of breaking barriers. Refugees who have been displaced by conflicts in their homeland all have a common desire to succeed in their new country. Food culture as an icebreaker has the means of healing power in social cohesion.
Globally, different types of “kitchen concept” emerged in countries that have high refugee settlements, connecting refugee diaspora with host communities. Not only do the refugees build new lives, they also form new friendships through these kitchens – signifying that gastrodiplomacy can trigger social entrepreneurs through humanitarian activities; working with government sectors for the benefit of the displaced.
The following examples corroborate how impactful gastrodiplomacy is for community integration. Citizens coordinating with community-oriented organisations have the potential to provide valuable skills, personal connections and financial stability to those who need it most – all through food.
“Conflict Kitchen”, a concept conceived in Pittsburgh, aimed to bring people together to the dining table, focusing on the cultural dimensions of cuisine as a language. Refugee groups that did not have restaurants that represented their cuisine were given a “microphone” with the intention of sharing their culture through cuisine. Barriers with language were overcome with the help of interpreters. It was noted that countries that the United States was in conflict with were missing from the local dining scene, such as Iranian, Afghan, Venezuelan and Cuban food. The dishes served had a story to tell – the refugee’s journey and their experiences settling in their new homes. This successful venture, which bridged some of the gaps through public dialogue and food, made transitions and acceptance of refugees easier in American communities.
A London-based charity, “International Alert”, was inspired by Conflict Kitchen’s approach and developed “Conflict Café”. Focusing on peacebuilding they developed and implemented monitoring systems to mitigate conflict – assisting governments, businesses and civil societies in conflicted countries. However, they realised something was missing, a softer side of their work. They needed a way to engage people and raise awareness in peacebuilding, hence decided to add cuisines in their outreach programmes. Collaborating with the chef network “Grub Club”, they recruited London-based chefs from selected conflict-affected countries to prepare traditional dishes.
These pop-up cafes use food as a means to open up dialogues about peace. Diners are invited to join communal tables where they are treated to a feast of traditional dishes that originated from areas of conflict in the world. With the aim of offering an interactive experience, guests can find out more about the issues facing the country in focus by hearing from the chefs. For instance, as a Syrian chef explains the struggles of his country, diners are able to put a face to the conflict, emotionally connecting to the country. Whilst dining, International Alert specialists talk about the disputes and how they can resolve them with the help of government and non-governmental agencies. It is an important measure as citizens get involved and voice out opinions to their respective governments, helping communities to resolve conflicts.
“Kitchen Hub” is another well-conceptualised programme from Berlin in which refugees host cooking lessons using modular kitchens for German citizens. This flexible modular kitchen addresses a multitude of needs, such as refugee-run cooking classes, workshops, discussions and community meetings. The idea to foster positive interactions between refugees and the German populace through cooking meals was conceived through “Uber Den Tellerrand”, a non-profit organisation. During class, refugees speaking in German will give presentations of their countries’ diverse cultures to their host communities, fostering a spirit of integration. Uber Den Tellerrand successfully operates Kitchen Hub satellites in 30 different cities around Europe. By creating a place of co-existence and mutual exchange and by mobilising refugees, these hubs became active components in shaping urban space.
In addition, there have been various campaigns and movements to help immigrant societies settle into new homes. Such campaigns as “Vindaloo Against Violence” in 2010 helped ease tensions between Australians and Indian immigrants. The Australians were encouraged to eat out in Indian restaurants to get to know their neighbours. In Rendsburg, Germany, community leaders brought Germans and Turkish immigrants to cook for each other, exchanging stories at the same time. This experience of cooking between the Turkish immigrants and German people fostered long-lasting relationships that was capped by a cookbook titled Buttercreme und Borek [Pastries with Buttercream].
Putting a name and a face to the refugees’ plight humanises conflict. People are engrossed in their own lives and, most probably, will not take time to read about Syrian, Afghanistan or Rohingya refugees. On the other hand, given a chance to hear stories from them – to experience the more human side of the country – generates an interest and positive perceptions. An informed citizen is better positioned to demand policy change. The outlined efforts show that there is a growing movement of people – private citizens, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), chefs and governments – building from ground up and utilising food for social change. In essence, creating a movement based on the merits of gastrodiplomacy.
Refugee problems in Malaysia
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are 178,450 refugees and asylum-seekers registered in Malaysia. Out of these, 153,800 are from Myanmar – about 102,020 Rohingyas, 22,440 Chins and 29,340 other ethnic groups. Some 24,650 refugees and asylum-seekers are from 50 other countries fleeing persecution and war. The number of children below the age of 18 is about 46,730.
Furthermore, there is an estimate of half a million unregistered refugees in Malaysia. Rohingya refugees form a big chunk of this equation and have been here for at least three decades. Many have settled in Malaysia as Rohingya resettlement attempts to other countries have not been as successful as before. Yet the influx of Rohingya have made certain communities in Malaysia uncomfortable, causing them to be perceived as a social, economic and security threat. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has certainly magnified these sentiments due to national resources becoming overstretched and with many Malaysians finding themselves in dire straits, contributing to a growing xenophobia.
Food is one of the oldest forms of exchange, but lacks recognition for social conflict transformation. In Malaysia, “PichaEats” grew out of a desire to empower and provide sustainable living to refugees and asylum seekers. The organisation identifies families who can cook, provides training, designs menus and packaging, runs marketing campaigns, and arranges logistics to deliver food cooked by PichaEats chefs to their clients. Its ultimate goal is to provide work opportunities for displaced refugee families in Malaysia – a platform to help themselves and their children.
As Malaysia is not part of the 1951 Refugee Convention, it technically does not recognise refugees as asylum seekers. This means refugees in Malaysia are not allowed to be formally employed. Working around the system, PichaEats supports the chefs by preparing the food in their own homes according to strict quality standards. The dishes are then picked up by local part-timers, who deliver them to the final destination.
Basically, Malaysia developed a strong network of supporters and volunteers in sustaining relationships between affected communities. Nevertheless, there is room for improvement by utilising cuisine to deepen relations.
Discontent and differences arise in such areas as low-cost apartments where Malaysians and refugees now find themselves in closer proximity. Animosity builds up purely because they are not familiar with each other’s culture. Using modular kitchen systems in areas where there are conflicts can be helpful – creating a multifunctional place where such events as cooking classes, workshops, discussions or community meetings can take place. Non- profit organisations coordinating with interdisciplinary groups of students, refugees, craftsmen and chefs plus working alongside the government can generate positive results. Creating a space of coexistence and mutual exchange bridges the differences, bringing opposing parties together.
This purposeful built kitchen space is a safe haven where informal discussions over cooking a meal can build relationships. Gaining the trust of the refugee diaspora is important. Documentation becomes easier, alleviating problems with trafficking, smuggling and exploitation. Furthermore, this endeavour supports government control over forced migration security concerns.
Additionally, these kitchens can be an avenue for recognising the value of education by conducting talks and discussions. Young refugees will become part of the growing society and without skills of lifelong learning, they become a burden. Besides compromising their health, they are less likely to participate in decisions affecting them as well as creating barriers in future employment. Refugee parents often resist sending their children to school, especially girls and older boys, based on religious, cultural and material reasons. One of the ways to overcome this problem is to have best performing students share about how their paths changed for the better with education, thereby encouraging parents to send their children to school.
Food’s relationship with conflict is complicated and multidimensional. In a world of providing humanitarian aid and building relations, cuisines have become a larger inquiry as to how it is utilised as a tool to communicate culture. Examples of successes with different kitchens demonstrate that through food, people understand and empathise with refugees – leading to acceptance.
Malaysia’s refugee kitchen reveals that there is people-to-people diplomacy; compassion and culinary interventions go a long way in diffusing conflicts. Nevertheless, more can be done by developing additional kitchens in the realm of gastrodiplomacy and making it transparent. Such measures can empower diaspora communities to share their tradition and cultures, despite not speaking the same language. In the end, people will see that refugees want to have an opportunity to work and to be accepted in the communities that host them. Gastrodiplomacy is an exemplar endeavour – a driving force for integration and, more importantly, a soft power tool.
Sujatha Spaapen is an International Relations Master’s student at University of Malaya, and interned with the Foreign Policy and Security Studies at ISIS Malaysia from October to December 2020