Earlier this month in a northern province of Spain, 120 local and immigrant families including people from Uruguay, Morocco, Senegal, Mongolia, and lots of Basques, sat down to home-cooked lunches in 60 different homes. The multi-culti meals were part of a project called Next Door Family, which ran simultaneously in seven other European countries as part of a program to break stereotypes and remove fears between locals and immigrants.
Being an immigrant in Europe is rarely much of a picnic, yet people keep coming in increasing numbers in search of a better life. The most recent European data show that more than 800,000 foreigners gained citizenship in the EU in 2010, a record high and a 4% increase from the year prior.
Efforts to integrate these newcomers—helping them find homes, jobs, and support networks—have been spotty at best. The economic crisis is taking its toll too. Jobs are harder to find for everyone, and hostilities toward foreigners, at least anecdotally, seem to be on the rise. An EU survey (pdf) out on Nov. 27 revealed that a quarter of 23,500 surveyed said they had been the victim of a crime at least once in the 12 months before the survey. A separate question revealed that 18% of all sub-Saharan Africans and 18% of all Roma surveyed said they had experienced at least one racially-motivated crime in the past 12 months.
Jelena Silajdžić, a Bosnian immigrant to the Czech Republic, founded Next Door Family with her husband Dzemil. They run it, along with other programs to help immigrants, through an NGO they founded in 1999 called Slovo 21. The pair had fled the war in Sarajevo in 1992 with their children. Their life in Prague was very different from the one they left behind. In Sarajevo, Silajdžić worked as a movie producer on films such as Emir Kusturica’s Time of the Gypsies. Her husband was a musician who also worked in the film industry.
They didn’t speak Czech and had few friends. Still, Silajdžić acknowledges they were luckier than most. The friends they had helped them start a small cafe and bar in Prague. They knew nothing about running it, but managed to keep it afloat and eventually sell it. “We hate bars, but at the same time I loved every millimeter of that bar because it was a big support for us, and for our friends and family in Sarajevo,” says Silajdžić.
In 2004, a woman working in a butcher’s shop accused Silajdžić of speaking extremely poor Czech. “I’m sure I speak well enough, and you can understand me if you wanted to,” Silajdžić replied. The woman said she didn’t want to understand, and added: “What are you doing here? Why don’t you go home?” Silajdžić says she couldn’t sleep that night, because she was as upset by the woman’s words as her own rude response.
The next morning, she told her husband she had an idea. They had lived in the Czech Republic for 12 years, and only on one or two occasions had been guests in a Czech person’s home. What if she could get locals and immigrants to come together over a bowl of goulash or some Chinese dumplings? If only people had a little experience with immigrants, they might be open to others.
Everyone she shared her idea with was skeptical, including her staff at Slovo 21. Even those she convinced to participate were terrified, calling multiple times to be reassured they were cooking the right things. People were matched to some degree by age, background and interests, and people volunteered to host or be guests. In the first year, 100 lunches were held with 200 families. “This success was so nice and so big,” she says, “it was really so wonderful that we cried.”
The following year, the number of participants declined, but the couple and their team kept going, promoting the lunches along with other projects such as a school program to foster better relationships between Europeans and newcomers, and another initiative to support the Roma community that includes a large annual musical festival.
This past year, after raising €392,000 ($508,000) from the EU Integration Fund fund, and money from the city of Prague and others, the program expanded through partnerships with existing NGOs to seven European countries including Belgium, Hungary, Italy, and Portugal. Next year, the goal is to have lunches in a total of 15 countries including France, Germany, and the UK.
More than a thousand families have taken part so far, but that’s a small number compared with Europe’s immigrant population, and success is hard to measure. The people who sign up are also probably not the people who most need convincing that it’s a good idea to be kind to your neighbors. Still, it’s a start. Malta organizer Freya Griffiths, who helps African migrants learn English and find warm clothes for winter, said their 15 lunches, which included people from 15 different non-EU countries, resulted in at least three instances of the guests offering to host follow-up lunches, and one Chinese family saying the experience gave them the courage to invite their Maltese neighbors for a meal.
Friendship matters to foreigners whose families are far away. Azhar Ali Haidry of Pakistan is studying for his doctorate in physics in Bratislava. He’s made friends at school, but his wife Fatima doesn’t speak Slovak and so it’s harder for her. As part of the program, the couple dined with a young Slovak couple, who also have a baby as they do. “My wife enjoyed it a lot, and when I’m done writing my dissertation next month we will surely meet again,” says Haidry.
Next Door Family also got some notice from the kind of people who can advocate for better integration programs. Anaitze Aguirre, who helped arrange the lunches in the Basque Country and who spends most days battling racism, partly directed against immigrants, says that two mayors took part in the lunches. One dined with a Moroccan family, another with a couple from Honduras and Nicaragua. Other minor notables included a paralympic swimmer, the director of immigration for the Basque government, and politicians from different parties.
In the end, people often have more in common than they think with strangers and foreigners. Sophia Engelen, a youth worker who helped organize the Belgian lunches, went to one with a young Chinese couple, who had learned that day that they were expecting a baby. The Chinese couple taught their Belgian hosts how to use chopsticks, while the Belgian family gave the Chinese couple tips on raising children. “In Belgium, some people think that these migrants are here here to take their jobs,” says Engelen. “But they really want a better life, and everyone wants the same things for their children.”
Here’s a video of the lunches in the Czech Republic.