Options FoodLab: Refugees in Athens as Catalysts for Social Change

The breaking of bread begins a feast organized by locals and refugees with Options FoodLab in Athens. Photo: MultiKulti.gr

Since 2015, Greece has received over 800,000 refugees, the largest share of refugees entering Europe. Athens has become one of the key stopovers for refugees on their way to Northern Europe. In a country devastated by five years of austerity imposed in response to its debt crisis, the Greek state is unable to accommodate the staggering numbers of new arrivals. Instead, the task is taken up by networks of self-organised initiatives, many of which emerged previously to counteract neoliberal austerity. Collective kitchens, housing squats, autonomous social spaces, and cooperative food markets have mobilised to provide essential services like housing, food, medical care, and information to refugees in Athens. Refugees are actively involved in the day-to-day operation of these initiatives. Thus, it is time to see them as catalysts of social change that will benefit local society. Options FoodLab is a good example of how refugees can be integrated into local society through a small-scale project.

Eddy Adams of SIX met me at the Unusual Suspects Festival in Glasgow, where we spoke about the work I'm doing with refugees in Greece.

Eddy Adams: can you tell us briefly what you've been doing and how you got involved?

Penny Travlou: Many thanks for inviting me to talk about my current work and research with refugees in Athens. I am a cultural geographer and ethnographer based in Edinburgh. I have an academic post in the School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, University of Edinburgh. Since 2010, I’ve been doing research on creativity as a collaborative and sharing knowledge practice within various emerging networks.

I started my research with digital practitioners and artists, but currently I am working with nomadic co-living communities, hackers, and refugees. I know that it may not make much sense, but all these diverse groups have one thing in common: They are on the move; they are nomadic. Of course, we cannot compare the experience of Northern European web designers -- for example -- who cannot afford to live anymore in London and Paris with that of the Syrian refugees who are forced to leave from their country due to the war. However, they all form a nomad transient citizenship which, in my view, is very influential in the way Europe will be shaped and experienced in the years to come.

So, last February, I moved to Athens for five months as part of my research leave. There, I met the co-living/co-working community unMonastery which had just moved to Athens, too. I decided to focus my research on this community, but as they were creating a network within the city, I ended up researching that instead! That’s how I got introduced to Jeff Andreoni, an unMonasterian and great connector with whom I organised my first pop-up kitchen event last April. Jeff is a food enthusiast who has been organising dinners in Athens for years to get locals and immigrants together.

In this event, we collaborated with an Eritrean refugee, Senait, who is a professional cook but who didn’t have the know-how to start her own business in Greece. Senait would like to open a restaurant in Athens in the near future. Our pop-up event was held in a beautiful neo-classic house in the centre of Athens. We hosted 100 people, served 15 different dishes and home-brewed non-alcoholic beer all made by Senait, and provided live African music.

That made us think that such small-scale events can be a great way to give job opportunities to newcomers (i.e. immigrants and refugees) and get them feel part of the Greek society and culture. From that event onward, we collaborated with and participated in other immigrant collective pop-up events. In the summer, we set up the African Collective Kitchen “OneLoveKitchen” with a group of cooks from Senegal, the Gambia, Sudan, Nigeria, Eritrea, and Ethiopia. We collaborated with the African United Women Organisation and Nosotros, the free social centre. All our events have been self-organised without any formal funding. We have organised small pop-up dinners in houses and roof terraces, have served food in a solidarity economy festival, and have catered for two conferences. Since September, when a great influx of Syrian refugees has been arriving in Athens, some of us have also been involved in daily collective kitchens preparing food for a housing squat for refugees and other similar initiatives. Jeff and I are now working on the Options Foodlab, a professional kitchen and co-working space for food training which we hope to set up soon.

Senait (left) hosts a pop-up kitchen dinner for 100 guests in Athens. Photo credit: MultiKulti.gr.

Why do you think food is such a good connection point with refugees?

What I always say when people ask me why I got involved in such a project is to think of where the words "company" and "companion" come from. They both derive from the Latin word companio, which means one who eats bread (pane) with you. Thus, food making and sharing is a social act and a means of exhibiting respect for an existing or future relationship of reciprocity. Food making is about hospitality and connectivity. There is not a better way to bring people together: You don’t need linguistic cues to connect with others. With this perspective, we can think of food as an object of exchange, a gift that can be shared and exchanged.

Tell us a bit more about the migrants you've been working with. Are most of them new arrivals? Where have they come from -- and do they see themselves settling in Greece or moving to other parts of Europe?

Most of the immigrants and refugees we are working with are from Africa and have been in Athens for a couple of years. Some have gained refugee status and others are still trying to get their asylum status. Most of them have daily jobs, such as working in cafés and restaurants, busking, house cleaning, and looking after elderly patients. They are all underpaid. Then, there are the ones who are unemployed or doing small jobs from home (e.g. making and selling bread in their community, hairdressing, mending clothes, etc.) Nonetheless, most of them would like to stay in Greece for long and making plans for settling down and opening their own businesses. Only two of our cooks left to Northern Europe in the summer when the Macedonian borders were still open.

What barriers are they facing, in terms of social and economic integration?

The list of barriers that refugees and immigrants face upon their arrival in Greece is very long. Don’t forget that Greece is still within a financial crisis and an austerity-ridden environment. Thus, the problems that refugees experience are even harsher -- hostility and suspicion from locals, unemployment, homelessness, and difficulty in assimilating new cultural values. Some of the people we work with have escaped from extremely undemocratic regimes, faced imprisonment and torture before arriving to Greece, so for them it is very important to move on from their past and make a better living. Unfortunately, in most cases, they find themselves trapped within a bureaucratic system which is difficult to penetrate and get the necessary papers and documents in good time.

Often, building a trusted relationship is the key to successfully working with vulnerable, marginalised communities. How have you done this in Athens?

I fully agree with your statement: Trust is the glue for good and long-lasting relationships. In our case, I think we have succeeded to make good friends and business partners because we have tried to avoid hierarchies within our group. We are true believers in collaboration, peer-to-peer learning, and horizontal power structures: We are all equal within our network of collaborators. Of course, this is not easy to maintain and there is not a magic recipe, either.

We also had our failures: There were instances of conflict among our group. How could you bring together people of so many different cultures, political ideologies, and religious beliefs? We’ve been working with Muslims and Christians, old and young, women and men, anarchists and new agers, people of different sexual orientations... basically with very different people. Thus, conflict should be expected and welcome in the group. It’s a way to go forward, of understanding people’s differences and positionalities. What, though, has made us continue is trust amongst one other -- the belief that we are all equal and part of a solidarity network.

An Eritrean coffee ceremony the first night Penny met Senait in Athens. Photo credit: Elipida Tempou.

Who have been your key allies and supporters on the ground? In Greece, when there are so few resources, where has your support come from?

So far, we’ve been working as a self-organised, autonomous initiative without any formal funding. Most of us work as volunteers in the foodlab and pop-up events. In fact, only the cooks are paid -- via donations that the guests give. We also got a small grant from OuiShare, the global community for a collaborative society.

In the past, we tried to make partnerships and collaborations with local authorities and public organisations but without much success. Due to the financial crisis, there is a lot of resentment of what they can offer financially to initiatives like ours. We also tried to collaborate with NGOs, but again, as they also face an uncertain future, they cannot commit to new projects.

Our closest allies and supporters are people who know well our work and trust us -- other self-organised initiatives and collectives.

Looking at the work that's been done so far -- although it's a loaded term -- where's the innovation in your opinion?

In a few words: human capacity and solidarity. All our work is based on developing a strong network of supporters and volunteers, and sustaining relationships within the network. Each of us has a distinct role within the project according to our skills. Some maintain the online communication, write blog posts, and organise the events; and others do the shopping and help the cooks. We also care for each other -- we try to ensure that we are all in good health and happy. Thus, innovation is in collaboration and sharing. We co-create the pop-up events.

And what are the plans for the future? How can you build on what's been done so far?

At the moment, we are working on our business plan as we would like to see our project becoming more self-sufficient (not depending only on donations). We are looking at all different business options, from setting up a social enterprise to a company for-profit. This is not an easy task, as the business environment in Greece is not very good at the moment. We are also looking for a space to use as our co-working hub where we can cook and organise pop-up events.

And how transferable are the approaches that you have developed? What can other cities take away from this work?

If you don’t mind, I will change your question a bit and ask first what people in bottom-up initiatives in other cities can take from our work. Well, this is easy to answer -- commitment, enthusiasm, and belief that you can change things, if you get together. You can only succeed if you collaborate and share knowledge practices and skills.

However, city top-down level support is more than welcome. It will make projects like ours have a future: It will provide financial stability to those who need it (e.g. the refugee/migrant cooks). We also cannot always depend on people’s goodwill to help for free; this will only sustain precarious labour.

If people reading this want to help or get involved, what can they do?

There are two ways that people can help our Options FoodLab: If they are in Athens, they can get in touch with us and get involved in the organisation of our pop-up events. Then, they can, of course, help us raise money to purchase cooking equipment and set up our space.

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This interview was first published last January at Social Innovation Europe (SIE) as part of their interview series “Beyond Crisis: Migrant Integration.” Eddy Adams of SIX (Social Innovation Exchange) asked me to discuss my experience at Options FoodLab, an Athens-based professional kitchen, food training center, and co-working space that aims at social integration for asylum seekers and migrants who have chosen to live in Greece long-term.

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