‘We stopped being afraid to meet local people’: The Czech lunches that connect families

'We stopped being afraid to meet local people': The Czech lunches that connect families
A picture of one of the lunches connecting families in the Czech Republic. Photo: Montserat Pont Bonsfills/Slovo 21
After an unpleasant encounter at a local market in the Czech Republic that was triggered by language barriers, Sarajevo-born Jelena Silajdzik, 66, knew things had to change.

This article is part of Changing the Narrative. Articles in this series are written by student or early career journalists who took part in The Local's training course on solutions-focused migration reporting. Find out more about the project here.

The ex-film producer had to leave her home behind with her musician husband and two children during the Balkan war to survive. “We hoped we would be back in Sarajevo where we were really happy. We had nice jobs and it was really a paradise,” she says.

It's been 28 years and during this time Silajdzik made it her mission to promote tolerance towards migrants in the Czech Republic. Her initial idea of bringing natives and non-natives together for a lunch received serious doubts from her young, native colleagues. “They told me: 'It's impossible. Czech families don't meet up so much with each other, maybe… only once a year',” she remembers.

The now award-winning project called Next Door Family was first launched in 2004 by NGO Slovo 21. In the first year, 200 families participated in the initiative – 100 Czech families and 100 foreign families. The high level of interest from the Czech side left Silajdzik, director of Slovo 21, and the staff in tears.

“It was fantastic. So emotional. About 130 Czech families applied for this project,” says Silajdzik, recalling their initial expectations of natives not being open to the idea.

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The project supports third-country nationals' smooth integration into the local community, resulting in feeling a sense of safety and belonging in their new country, by making bonds with natives. Similarly, locals get a chance to gain insight into the cultures and stories of these people, helping them see minorities as equal human beings with common interests. The get-together also aims to change the immigrants' perception of the locals being 'unfriendly' and 'closed off' towards them.

“Only the first impulse, the first initiative is from our side. After that, these people will decide if, in the future, they will meet or not,” Silajdzik explains.

The occasion takes place on the last Sunday of November every year. For a higher success rate, Czech and immigrant families are paired together based on age, language, hobbies, interests and location. The two families can decide on who will host the lunch. It's an opportunity for them to taste traditional dishes, chat about culture and see the 'normal life' of the other family. A project assistant with a migrant background helps in the organisation of the event and is also present during the lunch to put the families at ease.

Based on the early years' evaluation of the project, the most challenging part was the involvement of foreign families, as they were untrusting of being involved in public events and of the media. Therefore, only the personal circle of the project assistants were contacted to take part. However, since the most recent refugee crisis in 2015, they've been facing difficulties in finding native participants.

About three years into the project, research carried out by Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic, indicated that more than 65 percent of participants met up at least once again after the get-together. The next evaluation that took place four years ago showed a decrease, with only 47 percent keeping in touch.

Jan Schroth, 47, who works for the International Organization for Migration, says Next Door Family is well-known among people who work with migrants and is also advertised in the media. Even though he is “not the perfect target group on the Czech side” as his family has foreign friends, mostly EU nationals, and he had worked in Yemen in the past, he wanted his daughters to experience a different culture.

“It was really interesting – especially for my family – because, for the first time [in 2019], my daughters also have had the opportunity to see how it works in a more or less traditional Muslim family,” says Schroth.

He adds: “On purpose, I didn't explain these things to them in advance. But of course, after the event they had many questions.”

Their hosts also have two daughters and a son, but “unfortunately, they [the kids] did not speak Czech so well”. It didn't hold Jan and his family back from having a great time and trying different Libyan meals.

“We exchanged a few messages at the beginning of the new year but then Covid came,” he explains. They've been discussing inviting the family back once the current situation gets better.

Over the past 16 years, 1,676 families have taken part in the programme. Next Door Family received a SozialMarie award for social innovation in 2011. A year later, the project had been implemented in seven other European countries, including Belgium, Slovakia, Malta, Hungary, Italy, Spain, Portugal and the Cape Verde Islands outside of Europe.

During that year, a strong working relationship was established among the eight international organisations in the integration field, with the inclusion of 416 families, three steering committees and the arrangement of three trainings and 11 multicultural evenings.

From the beginning, Next Door Family was supported by the European Integration Fund and co-financed by external local sources. However, according to the European Website on Integration, the initiative ceased to be an EU-funded project in February 2013. A month before that, a documentary – shot in 2012 – was released for educational purposes, featuring one family lunch in each project country, where both participating families shared their prior expectations and experiences of the gathering.

After an appearance on BBC News, the project received interest from other continents. “One family mailed us and asked if it was possible to organise meetings with American and Mexican families in Texas,” says Silajdzik.

Along with the Czech Republic, Spain and Portugal carried on the yearly organisation of the event but funding needs to be raised locally. “Our partner from Spain gained a special award from the European Commission for this project, like one of the best forms of integration communication between mainstream society and immigrants,” discloses Silajdzik. She says their Portuguese partner claims “this is the nicest and the most effective project in their immigration history”.

The Ministry of Interior of the Czech Republic provides 70 percent of the budget with additional financial support coming from the Prague municipality. Silajdzik says funding is the biggest limitation and they had to reduce the number of lunches taking place this year due to financial restraints and Covid-19. (Unfortunately, due to Covid restrictions, the event was postponed until the end of December, and may have to be cancelled altogether)

As part of the EU project closure, 1,800 participants and organisers completed a survey about their experiences. The feedback on the function was very positive. The evaluation summarises how pleasantly surprised the families were about the outcome of the programme – mainly about how much they have in common with the other family despite the cultural differences.

Ukrainian-born Anastasiia Pashkevych, 31, heard about the project from a friend who had worked for an NGO helping foreigners. “At that time [2016] we had few contacts in the Czech Republic and we wanted to find new friends for ourselves and our children,” she remembers. In her case, they were invited over to taste traditional Czech dishes. Pashkevych says the conversation was easy flowing and they had spent five hours with the family.

“Despite the fact that we did not become friends with the family that was chosen for us, the project was positive for us. We realised that local families have the same problems as us. We received a lot of recommendations and advice.”

She adds: “We stopped being afraid to meet and get in touch with local people.”

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In the following years, Pashkevych joined the initiative as a project assistant to support fellow non-natives. “It is not always possible for strangers with different cultures and languages to quickly find a common language. People do not always know how to behave, what to talk about.”

The assistants' role is “to organise the meeting itself, find topics for conversation, ask questions that would be of interest to everyone and explain the details”.

“The project primarily helps to erase the boundaries in the relationships and to understand others,” explains Pashkevych.

In recent years, the event attracted minorities from Syria, Egypt, Libya, Iran, Armenia, Mongolia, Vietnam, New Zealand, Belarus, India, Turkey, Russia, Ukraine and Algeria.

Armenian-born stand-up comedian, Tigran Hovakimyan, has created six humorous educational videos titled 'Don't be afraid, ask' as part of the initiative. These videos feature discussions about other cultures, aimed at the general public.

Future plans include Hovakimyan and the cast visiting primary and high schools to show the videos and talk to kids about minorities and multicultural societies.

Families who'd already participated in the project showed interest in attending a joint meeting with other involved families, to be able to discuss their experiences and get to know more people. In 2019, 183 people showed up at these cultural programmes that took place in Olomouc, Havlíčkův Brod and Ostrava, Czech Republic.

Silajdzik believes that this initiative is more effective than conferences, round tables or workshops on this topic, because “it's directly about people”.

“Connecting people is our mission. I think that personal contact and communication is the base of everything,” she concludes.

Kitti Palmai is a UK-based freelance journalist and copywriter specialising in business and languages. She has written for BBC News, Language Magazine and many more.


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