Magic at the lunch table

Magic at the lunch table

The Welcome Dinner Project held an international student welcome lunch on March 10 at the Boyd Community Hub, attracting more than 30 participants.

Its student pilot program was initiated in late 2018 to help newly-arrived international students connect with established Australians.

“The point is for international students to connect with local Australians over a shared meal – in someone’s home or in a trusted community space like a library, town hall or community centre,” said student pilot project manager James Seow.

“Everyone brings a dish that tells story about their life, family or culture, to share with everyone in the group.”

“Magic happens at the dinner table. When we eat together, when we share a meal, somehow, we are more receptive to the exchange of ideas, opinions, perspectives, life experiences and so on.”

Seeing the enormous potential in promoting a sense of belonging to the community and enhancing social capital, Study Melbourne and City of Melbourne also came on board to support the program.

Wurundjeri elder Aunty Julieanne Axford started the event with a beautiful Welcome to Country.

A Taiwanese student was delighted by the opportunity to practise speaking English with local residents.

Australian Jan Rees spoke of her first experience of a community welcome lunch: “I was impressed by the friendly, happy atmosphere and everybody being with everybody. I thought it was a really wonderful occasion.”

Mr Seow said when the international student program started last August it joined the project’s existing streams: skilled migrants, refugees and asylum seekers.

His first welcome dinner was three years ago in St Kilda.

“It was a huge one, I saw it in my council newsletter,” he said.

“The guests came from all over the world and at the end of the dinner I felt very encouraged, because there is a global climate of alienation and division between people of different cultures.”

“They welcome strangers into their own homes, everyone brings a dish that tells a story to share with the entire group.”

Prompted by the event description to bring something from his culture, Mr Seow brought sago pudding.

“I’m from Singapore, I’m three quarters Chinese and one quarter Peranakan,” he said.

“It’s a culture that’s indigenous to Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.”

Trained volunteers professionally facilitate the project’s events.

A Bolivian volunteer, Cecilia Rios Teran, said the project helped bring her out of the often-isolated life of an international student.

“It’s true, we’re always with other international students. I would go from class to my room to class to my room and so on,” she said.

“I wasn’t as confident talking with Australians as with other international students.”

Ms Teran saw the Welcome Dinner Project on Facebook. During a phone conversation with Mr Seow, she was asked to cook something from her culture for her first event. She brought a dish with quinoa.

Since then, she’s established an array of networks, connections and friendships.

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