Refugee chefs take over Geneva restaurants: ‘I am convinced it can help change people’s perceptions’
On Sunday October 15th Sri Lankan chef Thambithurai Sritharan, an asylum seeker in Switzerland, will take over the kitchen of the Brasserie des Halles de l’Ile in Geneva as part of the first Swiss edition of the Refugee Food Festival.
Created by the Food Sweet Food association and co-organized by the UN’s refugee agency, the Refugee Food Festival is a citizens’ initiative offering talented refugee, asylum-seeking and provisionally admitted chefs the chance to showcase their skills and culinary heritage.
Already staged in cities around Europe, this first Swiss edition (October 11th-15th) sees five restaurants in Geneva open their kitchens to chefs from Syria, Eritrea, Sri Lanka, Tibet and Nigeria, who will present a special menu of their own dishes for one brunch, lunch or dinner only.
In doing so, the festival aims to change perceptions of refugees and asylum seekers and boost their chances of finding work, as well as offering local people the chance to discover cuisines from all over the world.
Sri Lankan chef Thambithurai Sritharan has worked in the food industry for 15 years and arrived in Switzerland in January 2016.
Here, he tells The Local what taking part in the festival means to him.
Why did you want to take part in the Refugee Food Festival?
I have been cooking for decades in various capacities. Since I arrived in Switzerland, I also like cooking for my fellows at the [asylum seeker residence] Foyer Frank-Thomas, where I am currently living – sometimes for 200 people at a time! The idea of feeding people has always driven me forward. Also during the war in Sri Lanka, where food was scarce and people were missing a lot of things. It is a way for me to make people happy, to share what I can offer.
Sri Lankan cuisine is rather complex: it involves a lot of different spices and ingredients. I am therefore very proud to be able to introduce this cooking to new people here in Geneva. They might find it a little bit too spicy at first, but all those who tasted it before ended up asking for it again!
What do you hope to achieve by sharing your cooking with people in Geneva?
I am motivated by the idea of meeting new people and of making them happy by sharing my cooking. The festival also offers me a chance to demonstrate my professional skills. I always thought that people will respect you for your own behaviour – through your acts rather than your fine words. That’s also the reason why I am very active at the Foyer Frank-Thomas, always trying to help others – children and elders, as well as people from other communities.
John Griffin of the Brasserie des Halles de l’Ile and guest chef Thambithurai Sritharan. Photo: UNHCR/Mark Henley
Do you think the event can help change negative perceptions of refugees?
Yes, I am convinced that it can help change people’s perceptions of refugees and asylum seekers. Many people here know very little about Sri Lanka. I think one can learn a lot from others and from other communities, simply by sharing one’s knowledge and by exchanging with one another. The festival therefore provides me with an opportunity to build understanding for my culture and to let people realize that we might not be that different from each other. I also want to meet the guests that will come to the Brasserie des Halles de L’Ile and answer their questions, give them information on the dishes I prepared and the country they come from.
Do you hope the festival could lead to a job for you here?
Of course, I would love to find a job thanks to the festival. I’m a hard worker and cannot stay idle for very long. I’ve already been looking for a job in Geneva, but my N-permit and my asylum-seeker status make it rather difficult to engage in a conversation with employers. However, that’s not my main motivation for participating in the festival: I’m not here for the benefits, rather for the opportunity to bring joy to other people and to share something with them.
Do you like it in Switzerland?
Yes, I haven’t encountered any negativity here, I feel welcome and safe in Switzerland. The strength of human rights in Swiss culture and institutions act as a guarantee for the future, notably for protecting people like me.
The Refugee Food Festival is held from October 11th-15th and the programme also includes: Syrian chef Nadeem Khadem Al Jamie at the Hôtel d’Angleterre, Nigerian Timothy Desmond Eze at the Bains des Pâquis, the Eritrean street food of Fieruz Tafla at FOOUND, and Tibetan chef Dekhi Dolkar at L’Olivier de Provence. For more details and to book, visit the festival website.