Rachel Graham speaks to Michelle Darmody and Ellie Kisyombe, founders of non-profit pop-up cafe Our Table, which aims to help refugees through employment, and raise awareness about Direct Provision through friendship and integration.
“There’s nowhere else I’d rather be tonight.” These were the words of Colm O’Gorman, Director of Amnesty International in Ireland, as he spoke to the crowd at the launch of the Our Table cafe last Wednesday, 11th November. This was the day when we woke up to the news that America had voted Trump into the White House. There was a solemn but defiant atmosphere amongst the busy crowd during the powerful speeches delivered by O’Gorman, Nick Henderson (Irish Refugee Council) and Neltah Chadamoya (Africa Centre). Our Table is a new pop-up cafe in the Project Arts Centre. It is a non-profit venture founded by political activist and asylum seeker Ellie Kisyombe, and Michelle Darmody of popular Dublin restaurants The Cake Cafe and Slice. It’s mission is to raise awareness of Direct Provision amongst the public, and help asylum seekers through employment and training. Many people at the launch had experienced the difficulty of migration firsthand, and the news of Trump’s election, and what it might mean for refugees worldwide, presented a visceral reminder of the importance of initiatives like Our Table. As Neltah Chadamoya told the crowd, “we experience Donald Trump every day. You are just getting a whiff of it now… allow yourselves to be challenged by him.” Despite the seriousness of the speeches and the gravity of the day’s international events, there was a positive energy. Music, food and a few drinks lifted the mood and turned the cafe into a bustling hub of enthusiasm and conversation. Everyone’s attention turned to the good thing that was happening right here, right now.
Earlier that day I met with Michelle and Ellie as they prepared for the launch. The project started about a year ago, when Michelle approached the Irish Refugee Council with the intention of bringing people from different backgrounds together around a table. They introduced her to Ellie, who was doing voluntary work there at the time, and together they organised some workshops. “We got a kitchen and a load of ingredients. Everyone came and cooked and shared recipes and ate lunch and chatted. We got emotional over food,” Michelle recalls. “We started with us, asylum seekers, mainly women asylum seekers, women from direct provision,” Ellie adds. It was while they were organising these workshops, and a number of larger events with their friend Fiona, that they met a lot of people who were looking for something more permanent. The cafe at The Project Arts Centre is a pop-up, somewhere they can gain a customer base and try stuff out before hopefully moving on to their own premises with a kitchen and “our own front door.” For now, they are at The Project and it’s a great space – quiet, airy and bright, with enough room for people to bring buggies and work on laptops as well as eat with groups of friends.
The staff are people who have come out of Direct Provision and got their refugee status. Apart from Ellie and Michelle, who work on a volunteer basis, they all have a full salary and an employment contract. “We did some focus groups and found that it can be quite difficult for people, even after they have got their papers,” Michelle explains. “Often it will have been quite a while since they have worked, so there’s a limbo space after the initial excitement.” While the cafe at the Project doesn’t have a kitchen, staff receive barista training, health and safety training, and other skills necessary for working in the Irish service and food industry, like building a CV. The coffee comes from 3fE, while the food – pastries, soup and cakes – is sourced from small businesses who have set up within migrant communities. “We are trying to make sure that the people who are refugees, who are now operating their small businesses, they are at least earning a living,” says Ellie.
The role of food in culture is undeniably significant – we build relationships by eating together, we celebrate special days with food, and we pass on history and heritage through recipes. For those in Direct Provision, food is a particularly poignant subject – forbidden to cook for themselves, they must eat the food that is prepared in the canteen. Ellie, who has first-hand experience of Direct Provision, points out that not only does this rob people of the joy of cooking and eating the things they enjoy, it is also bad for their physical and psychological health. “You have to eat what you are given, there is no choice at all,” she says. “This food is not well cooked, this food is not fresh, there’s a lot of fried stuff. Food is therapy. When you eat nice, comforting food, you feel good.” Michelle thinks it is unsurprising, when you consider that this is food which is essentially created not for nourishment but for profit. Private firms are contracted by the state to provide the food at Direct Provision centres, and in some cases this is a highly profitable activity. Apart from the issue of the food itself, the denial of being able to eat together as a family was what really got to Michelle: “The idea of not being able to sit around a table and share a meal and chat, you’ve no private space to do that in. So much of family life can revolve around the kitchen. If all of that is taken away, it can make a massive difference.”
At Our Table, food is something to be shared by people from diverse backgrounds, around the same table. Not as asylum seekers and Irish citizens, but just as people sharing a common experience. “Even if we can’t speak the same language, we can always laugh over food, nod our heads over food, and we can always smile and everyone say “good”, you know? [laughs] Food can unite us all around the table,” says Ellie. “We’re a year old now, so we know people who have met asylum seekers through Our Table, and now they’re good friends. They can visit them in the [DP] centres and know them for who they are.” The two women share a very holistic approach to awareness-raising, based on forming mutual understanding through conversation and shared experience. Awareness-raising and aiding integration was the initial inspiration behind the project, before they began to explore the possibility of providing training and employment. As Michelle says, “friendship is the best form of integration.”
For people still within the Direct Provision system, having lunch in a cafe is not financially viable – they receive a weekly allowance of only 19.10, an amount which hasn’t increased in more than a decade. They are also not allowed to take up paid work. In order for Our Table not to be an exclusionary space, vouchers are available in DP centres. “We’re very aware that people on 19.10 can’t eat in a cafe,” Michelle says. “We’ve got enough space here for everyone. So we want it to be an absolute open space for people, and if they don’t have the money, we have the facilities to support that.” While Our Table is a non-profit venture, they need paying customers to keep going. “Footfall will make or break us. Our deal is to be self-sustaining, we don’t want to run something that needs to be constantly funded. If we get customers, it should sustain itself,” Michelle says.
So far the project has received a lot of support from the public, with a very successful FundIt campaign and a huge turnout at the launch night. On a day that Nick Henderson, CEO of the Irish Refugee Council, described as a “bad day for human rights”, Ellie emphasises her wish to get together and do something good, something that the community needs, rather than having to talk to others about her struggles all the time. Our Table offers a platform from which to affirm a commitment to welcoming and collaboration rather than distrust and segregation. As Colm O’Gorman points out in his speech that night, it’s not a mistake that systems like DP are so unwelcoming. It’s a reflection of our policy and our government’s lack of will to provide people seeking refuge with the dignity they are entitled to. “I just think we could do with more empathy in society right now, today particularly” Michelle says. “Maybe this is a place people can show a bit more empathy.” By coming here we can say “I don’t want this in my name.”
Our Table is open Monday-Friday from 10am-4pm, serving hot drinks and light lunches.
Photos: Rachel Graham