“Open Meals with Refugees is about bringing people together to realize who we are in a different way…”

My mom was the caretaker for all of us, she set the rules, gave us advice (laughs), and she still does. “I am your mother,” my mom always says, “I won’t stop advising you, even when you are an old man.”

I was born in Freetown, Sierra Leone. My Dad was a school teacher and my mom took care of me and my nine siblings at home. My mother’s job as a homemaker had a lot of impact on me. Her strategy was strict and she required us all to go to school, her focus was on education and that really helped me as a refugee.

As a teenager in Sierra Leone, life was disrupted by periods of war. It was really chaotic. We moved a lot in those years, and ultimately I made the decision to leave my country when I was at University. When I came to Europe, I arrived as an educated and rational thinker, and that meant I was prepared to make the best moves for myself and my work. I immediately started exploring opportunities and investigating what my identity would become in a new place. Leaving my family in Africa was the biggest risk I’ve ever taken though. It’s not easy to make a decision like that and stick with it.

Living all your life in Africa, there isn’t much focus on exploring yourself as an individual. It can be difficult to discover who you are because of certain expectations. If your mom wants you to study economics, you study economics. If your family works in the bank, well then you also work in the bank. But in my last eight years living in Amsterdam, I’ve gone through the process of discovering who I am.

Very early on after arriving in Holland, I got involved with organizing a lot of community events at Worldhouse, an organization that helps people, mostly undocumented migrants, with their legal processes. At first, I organized a discussion group and movie nights surrounding social issues. I did that project for three years. Eventually, it became clear to me that community organizing is the kind of work I should be doing, so I came up with the idea for Open Meals with Refugees in 2016.

Open Meals with Refugees is about bringing people together to realize who we are in a different way. It’s centered on the idea of sharing food across cultures, and the format is a monthly public potluck with games, music and dancing. For the dinner, each person who attends brings a dish to share from their own country and we focus mainly on foods we used to eat at home with our families.

When the project first began it involved about thirty people, and now it draws a crowd of about 120 each month. Open Meals was historically located inside of Worldhouse, but we are currently looking for a new space. Nowadays, Open Meals isn’t just about sharing food, we also incorporate games, music and dancing. These three things, when combined, give people the opportunity to loosen up and connect with one another in a really enjoyable way.

You know, it’s really amazing to see someone else enjoying your food. It gives you so much pleasure. For example at the last Open Meals, a Dutch guest was thrilled that people ate his soup so quickly. It was a visible representation of how much everyone enjoyed what he had to offer. Seeing people appreciate his food made sharing his own culture that much more gratifying.

Looking back on my upbringing, I see now what a huge impact my mom’s job as a homemaker had on me. Our house was the center for family and friends coming to the city for school, and my mom was at the head of it all. Her ability to foster a supportive community while managing so many individual needs in the midst of intermittent political upheaval in my country shaped how I approach my work.

You could say in some ways she is still advising me from a distance.

Interview with Sahr John

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