Catering Integration

A new initiative serves delivered lunches to local businesses while training refugee women for careers in the food service business.

Additional research by Fausia Abdoel

In a rented kitchen in the 17th district, things are bustling: At one prep station a young woman in her 20s in jeans and a head scarf stands next to a basket of onions, peeling and cutting them with tears in her eyes; at another, a slightly older woman in a colorful dress and apron, curls tied back, is simmering a bowl of broth and vegetables for an oriental stew that will go into the gigantic metal serving bowl next to her.

Across from her, supervising chef Christian Türk is working with two others, carefully pouring fragrant rice milk pudding they have just made into a a huge clean aluminum pot. Türk glances up at the clock: It is already 11:30 and they have to hurry.  Speisen ohne Grenzen – Meals without Borders – promises delivery between 12 and 1pm.

Speisen ohne Grenzen, whose new side branch opened on April 27th where people can get a taste of the international dishes at Adria Wien on the Danube Canal till the end of this summer, is the newest of several local initiatives providing refugees with employment and training in the food service business through which, over time, they can begin to support themselves and gain a foothold in Austrian society. Founded in November 2018 by social entrepreneur Gabriel Zirm, trained in business and architecture, the project is already self-sustaining, financed through crowd funding and prepaid orders – already about 100 a week – from employees of Austrian companies in the neighborhood.  Now delivering three days a week, Zirm hopes to be open on a daily basis by fall 2019, with a regular stream of trainee chefs acquiring the skills and experience to set up their own businesses, ideally employing other refugees, or apply for other jobs. Working closely with integration counselors subsidized by the City of Vienna, the project is designed to launch the apprentice cooks in the right direction.

So far, Gabriel Zirm and Chris Türk have brought together a team of four trainee cooks to prepare the business lunch of the day; the menu rotates, taking advantage of the ethnic backgrounds of the trainees, who provide traditional menus from their home cultures, currently Syria, Somalia, Georgia and Afghanistan.  The menu goes online a week in advance, with orders due by Tuesday morning. Buying is exact; nothing goes to waste. The meals are prepared for a group, reducing packaging, and served directly in big serving dishes at the destination. Deliveries are by electric bicycle (Bakfiets), blending into the life of the Viennese streets.

With Radio Salzburg humming in the background, the women laugh and chat together in broken German as they work.  The menu rotates, Zirm explains: “Every day one of the women is the main chef featuring dishes of her home country,” he says. All are refugees, women from a variety of backgrounds, who arrived in Vienna with the 2015 wave of immigrants that brought over 1 million through Austria and 90,000 who applied for asylum to stay. It was one of the largest influx of refugees since World War II, that brought with it reports of human trafficking and forced marriages, corruption and opportunism, as well as unmanageable burdens on social systems and fears of rising crime. However, it has also accompanied by remarkable acts of generosity from local communities, and coordinated government action that within relatively short time, developed systems to support and integrate the new arrivals.

Four years after the influx, unemployment is actually down in many parts of Austria, and a number of studies, like a recent one by CNRS, show that asylum seekers soon make a net contribution. Meals without Borders is “part of that process,” Zirm said, offering refugee women with few prospects the opportunity to stand on their own feet freeing them from the community pressure of marriage. Fatima, a refugee from Afghanistan, beamed as she held up her Austrian work contract, for her “a dream come true”:

“I cooked a lot before I came here,” she said, “but I was never allowed to get the groceries on my own, let alone officially work and talk to the guests. Now, I can proudly say I earn my own money. Vienna is my new home.”

Since 2015, Vienna has supported to varying degrees a number of initiatives to help refugees integrate.  One is CoRE – Centre of Refugee Empowerment and Urban Innovation that works with other city agencies to help refugees with professional training and skills to find a place to use them, and others, like Magdas Hotel, opened in 2017, where refugees and professionals work side by side to run all aspects of a multifaceted tourism and restaurant business. A number of other food service initiatives have sprung up, many from the Syrian community, and usually launched and operated by men.

Speisen ohne Grenzen is special in its focus on the support and training of refugee women of any background, offering a chance to become fully part of Austrian society. Not everyone in the refugee communities accepts the new wave of empowerment among the women, reflecting the cultural malaise often felt on both sides, and organizers are careful to protect the privacy of those who need it.

Dardis McNamee
Dardis McNamee is the Editor in Chief of Metropole. She has written for The New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler (NYC), the Wall Street Journal Europe and Die Zeit in Vienna, as well as having been a speechwriter to two U.S. ambassadors to Austria. She was awarded the 2007 Kemper Award for Excellence in Teaching (Media & Communications).

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