At these Swiss dinner tables, refugees hold the seat of honor

Why We Wrote This

Sometimes a warm welcome smells like homemade pasta. Some Europeans are welcoming refugees not just to their countries, but their kitchen tables. More than breaking bread, these meals are meant to break down barriers.

Dominique Soguel
Filmon Heileab, an Eritrean refugee living in Switzerland, shares videos of his children and music from his home country with Clara Belke (left, holding baby Malou), Simon Gottwalt, Julia Buhmann, and Philipp Kerler (right). The two Zurich couples invited Mr. Heileab for dinner on Sept. 23, 2019.

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An unprecedented 70 million people have been forced from their homes globally. In the face of this challenge, communities all over the world are turning to dinner projects, convinced that one of the best ways of breaking down barriers is the tried and true tradition of breaking bread. The range of hosts includes individuals, groups of friends, and even businesses. 

In Switzerland, one nonprofit, whose named translates as “Dinner Together,” has served as a matchmaker for such meals since 2014. It paired Filmon Heileab, an Eritrean refugee, with hosts in Zurich this fall. 

Mr. Heileab had spent 17 months detained for illegal entry and separated from his own young family. On a September evening, he sat down to salad and lasagna with his dinner hosts. He showed off family pictures and a video of the laughter-inducing climbing skills of his toddler. Mr. Heileab has two daughters, and their antics set the stage for common ground. 

“Children make things easier,” says host Simon Gottwalt, himself a dad. “They help create a connection.”

Mr. Heileab says he appreciates the opportunity to learn more about what’s happening in his new country. He left the meal feeling positive, he says. “The energy was good.”

Simon Gottwalt opts for salad and lasagna. It’s the strategic choice of a seasoned host who likes to focus on his guest once they cross the door, and of a parent keen to keep it simple.

“We always have a lot of people around,” says Mr. Gottwalt, a German living in Switzerland, before popping his signature dish into the oven. “It is rare that it is just us.”

What to cook can be a stressful decision when hosting, more so if the guest comes from a country with different culinary traditions. This is the second time that Mr. Gottwalt and his partner, Julia Buhmann, are welcoming a refugee into their Zurich flat, which they share with another couple who just had a baby. They all found the first time relatively positive, although it was a struggle to keep the conversation going and connect with the military experiences of their Afghan guest.

This September evening, the conversation flows. It transitions smoothly from somber moments – such as discussing the 17 months Filmon Heileab spent detained for illegal entry and separated from his own young family – to lighter ones. “It is because of prison that I got strong,” shares Mr. Heileab, an Eritrean who tried to cross from Italy to Switzerland three times before gaining refugee status.

Alternating between basic English and German, Mr. Heileab shows off family pictures and a video of the gravity-defying, laughter-inducing climbing skills of his toddler. He has two daughters, and their antics set the stage for common ground. His dinner hosts are parents to a toddler who was in bed by dinner and an alert baby who relished a new set of arms and smiles.

“Children make things easier,” reflects Mr. Gottwalt after the dinner. “They help create a connection.”

Mr. Heileab also left feeling positive. “The energy was good,” he says. “I like the opportunity to learn about what is happening in Switzerland.”

Such encounters are the fruit of the thoughtful matchmaking efforts of Gemeinsam Znacht – Dinner Together – a Zurich-based nonprofit founded in 2014. Its work was inspired by a similar initiative led by Ebba Akerman in Sweden. 

“I thought we have to do something in Switzerland, in the middle of Europe,” says Martina Schmitz, who recalls reading a New York Times feature about Ms. Akerman. Ms. Schmitz felt it crucial to take action in the face of the highest levels of displacement since World War II and launched Gemeinsam Znacht with the help of volunteers. 

An unprecedented 70 million people have been forced from their homes globally. In the face of this challenge, communities all over the world are turning to dinner projects, convinced that one of the best ways of breaking down barriers is the tried and true tradition of breaking bread. The range of hosts includes individuals, groups of friends, and even businesses. 

Trust at the table

In Zurich, one of the more multicultural cities of Switzerland, the number of applications from wannabe hosts boomed in 2015 when media focused on the thousands of refugees trudging along the Balkan route and those drowning at sea – including the Syrian Kurdish child, Alan Kurdi, who struck a nerve far and wide.

“We had this spike of applications but we did not have enough refugees,” recalls Anna Stünzi, a member of Gemeinsam Znacht’s board. The women and children who dominated media images rarely ended up in Switzerland. And those who did typically arrived via neighboring Italy from Libya rather than through the Balkan route.

Now, she says, the host-to-guest ratio is more or less even, although host interest can dip after events such as the 2016 Germany attacks, some of which were carried out by refugees. Sometimes hosts want to be reassured and ask if the organization does background checks. They don’t. Others question whether checks should be done for hosts. It took considerable effort and multiple visits to asylum centers to establish trust with potential guests.

“We had to convince them that this project is neither governed by the government, nor is it the police, nor is it any lawyer or something that would trick them,” adds Ms. Stünzi. “But also that it is not something where they would simply be looked at. ... That it was really about getting to know each other.”

One challenge is the language barrier. This made it difficult to coordinate dinners and ensure that guest reached their destination – although as time passed refugees acquired the local language, German. Hosts are instructed to follow up their invitation phone call with a message clearly stating the time and place of the dinner. Ms. Schmitz, who has overseen the coordination of more than 1,000 dinner events in the span of five years, is adamant that the first contact should be done over the phone.

“You can’t just send a WhatsApp message and say ‘Come to my place,’” she says. “It is a question of decency.”

‘Life changing’

The website features an FAQ section. The most common question from potential hosts is what to cook. Meals that are heavy on cheese – a major staple of the Swiss diet – are discouraged as guests might be lactose-intolerant. While a no-pork diet is safe to assume for a Muslim guest, hosts are also reminded of the multiple fasts followed by Christian Eritreans of the Orthodox Church.

Some hosts worry about wealth disparity and ask whether they should hide some of their belongings. Others have reservations over hosting single men. While the nonprofit screens both hosts and guests to ensure a match, it is not an à la carte process. About 80% of the potential guests are young men between 16 and 25, mainly from Afghanistan and Eritrea, reflecting refugee and asylum-seeker figures in Switzerland.

“I’ll always tell the mother of a family to take a young man as a guest because they come from big families. They have no distance to children. They’re not afraid of children. They accept them,” she says. “And 99.9% that is true.”

In a country where the nuclear family is small and the extended family rarely part of the picture, many Swiss hosts report being pleasantly surprised by guests who were delighted to play with their children and hold their babies while cooking was underway.

“If they do it, they open up to a completely different level of acceptance,” she adds. “All these young men you see in train stations, in trams, and suddenly you know one of them and you know he’s a nice guy. It’s a life-changing experience.”

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