It was six o’clock on a Saturday night as I rushed out the door of my flat. I hopped on the U and headed to Anna’s apartment not knowing what to expect. When I arrived around 6:30pm, I rang the bell and was buzzed into an older, charming building. There were voices down the hall and that I followed until I ducked into an open doorway. Suddenly, I felt captivated by the fragrant aromas of familiar, yet somehow-unfamiliar spices. I paused for a moment until I noticed a very large pile of shoes at the entryway; then thankfully remembered reading that when you enter someone’s home in Berlin, it was customary to remove them. As I was taking off my boots, I received a warm greeting and was relieved when I looked up to see familiar faces in the room. I knew I was in the right place and welcomed Anna’s offer of a glass of wine. It felt comfortable and I could immediately tell I was in for a great night. The next thing that caught my eye was the kitchen, which is where this delicious story begins…
I’ve been on the road for two months and I’m currently based in Berlin for the majority of July. So far I’ve learned a lot about [myself and] my travel style. For one thing, I avoid most overly-populated tourist activities and really love the thrill of seeking out local experiences. So when We Roam offered up a unique opportunity to attend a dinner cooked by Syrian refugees at a home in the Neukölln neighborhood of Berlin, I was more than a little bit excited.
These dinners are hosted bi-weekly by the lovely Hungarian-born Anna Gyulai Gaál on Withlocals.com. Through this platform she is working to help build connections between the refugees and their dinner guests. The Syrian women who are participating in the program live in crowded camps where they have no access to a kitchen and are not permitted to work without a permit. By providing her home and a way to market the events to the public, she is able to give the ladies a meaningful way to earn money while sharing parts of their culture with those who are willing to learn about it.
To be honest, the whole experience was a bit surreal. The night began with the women preparing five courses for us in Anna’s kitchen. When the food was ready, the guests helped them put the family-style dishes on tables in the living room. We were seated on floor cushions, and excitedly gathered around in anticipation of the first bite of their delicious, meticulously prepared food. I have been really curious about the refugees from Syria because of all of the political turmoil that we have seen surrounding the issue in the U.S., so I was thrilled that the ladies joined us for dinner. Although I was hoping to get an opportunity to learn more about them, their stories, their food and their culture, it was somewhat difficult to converse with them due to language barriers. There was a translator there to help and a few of the people in my group heard personal stories about some of the tragedies these ladies have been through, leaving family members and their homeland behind in hopes of finding a safer life for themselves.
I was lucky enough not only to attend the dinner, but also to be allowed into the kitchen with my camera to get behind the scenes of this special event. I asked permission in advance to take photos of the women preparing the meal and it was granted; however, for fear of retaliation to their families back in Syria, they asked that no fully identifying pictures be published online. The environment was not ideal for the camera without a tripod or any artificial lighting, but I still wanted to share them, hoping to shed a little light on what the experience was like.
For those who are not yet aware, I am traveling around the world for a year with We Roam. Besides planning our travel, housing and co-working space, they also locate and offer optional events for the group in our destination cities. This one was right up my alley because of the connection to food, and because of my background as a co-founder of Kitchen Underground (we also offered intimate culinary experiences in unique locations). I’ve always known I was a lifelong learner, but traveling takes it to another level by providing a platform that is super impactful and can’t be found online, in a textbook or a classroom. I would definitely recommend this experience to anyone visiting the city; you can book online here. UPDATE 11/15/2017: Anna has a new website for booking the Refugee Dinners http://refugeedinners.org/