Food Conviviality and Migrants’ Sustainable Livelihoods in Germany – ICAF Conference, September 2020

In September 25th 2020, the German team participated in the XLI Conference of the International Commission on the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition (ICAF), under the theme ” Gastronomy, Sustainability and Development”. Based on our fieldwork in Berlin with our partners REFUEAT ( and Über den Tellerrand (, our presentation explored the role of food and cooking in the articulation of relations between migrants and host communities in Germany. We analyzed how two initiatives by our partners foster food conviviality, and the social and economic relations this encompasses, to create sustainable responses to the unequal relationships that affect the lives of migrants. This post is the text of the presentation. Good read 🙂

In 2015, the number of people fleeing war, persecution and lack of economic perspectives in the Middle East and West Africa increased substantially. Many experienced dangerous and traumatic journeys to reach Europe. Once there, they faced the challenge of inclusion and integration into society – from jobs, housing and education to societal participation. Against nationalisms that demand the closing of frontiers and preach the rejection of the Other, citizens in several countries get organized around projects to support the newcomers. Food occupies a prominent place in many of these initiatives, which range from refugee food festivals, cooking workshops, community gardens, food aid, shared meals, and ethnic food events. Both necessary sustenance and a communicative system, food is framed by civil society organizations as a means to enable social integration. Food is seen as capable of bringing together people from different cultures and backgrounds. In the context of this study, food encompasses the activities of production, cooking, retail, catering and education aimed at concurring to social integration, be they non-commercial, job-related or entrepreneurial. We argue, accordingly, that food accomplishes a sustainable role for migrants’ presents and futures in host societies.

We see sustainability as a tripartite phenomenon with social, economic, and environmental dimensions, where what is at stake is the capacity to continue a desired condition or process, to preserve a certain status, or to provide with the necessities of life. To illustrate the interlocking of the social, economic and environmental dimensions, we could think on the conflicts between environmental advocates and rural people who live by natural resource production. These conflicts are not just about ecology versus economics; they are also about sustaining a way of life (Tainter 2006). This study focuses on two Berlin-based initiatives towards refugees and migrants where food and cooking are pivotal for the creation of contexts that foster exchange, innovation and creativity with locals. The initiatives we present here are carried out by the organizations called REFUEAT and Über den Tellerrand (meaning “Outside the Box” in German). Their overall aim is to contribute to the integration and sustainable livelihoods of newcomers, that is, stable and safe lives of migrants in Berlin.

We consider both initiatives as grounded on the concept of conviviality. Based on the Latin roots for ‘with’ and ‘living’, the term ‘conviviality’ has been associated with sociable, friendly, and festive traits, and broadly conceptualized as “the capacity of living together” (Wise and Noble 2016; Nowicka and Vertovec 2014). Conviviality addresses the challenges of intercultural relations and the consequences this has for local relations of living together. Conviviality conveys a deeper concern with the human condition and how we think about human modes of togetherness. But, more specifically, the initiatives addressed here are examples of what Turkish anthropologist Deniz Duru (2020) termed as “convivial solidarity”. By convivial solidarity, she refers to the collective work performed by civil society actors in order to fight for a common aim, and to find solutions for a common concern in non-communitarian and non-hierarchical ways. Convivial solidarity includes face-to-face social interaction; a sense of common humanity emphasized by those who engage with it; and a normative drive towards fighting for equal rights. While conviviality refers to living together on a daily basis, convivial solidarity inspires the people involved in possible future convivial living, especially in situations of tension or crisis. In the following, we will see how REFUEAT and Ueber den Tellerand put into practice convivial solidarity.

REFUEAT works to support sustainability in ecologically, economically, and socially manners: environmentally, they promote resourcefulness both by preferring organic and recyclable materials, as well as by relying on muscle power rather than fossil fuels to move through the city. Economically, they offer stable and fair-paid employment to members of a community, which commonly experiences much economic precarity. By providing financial security, REFUEAT gives their staff the opportunity to be independent from the instable support infrastructure provided by the government. Not being dependent on state benefits means that their staff are less affected by institutional pressures to assimilate, but instead are given the opportunity to build a life in Germany on their own terms.

Besides offering employment to migrants, it is particularly important to REFUEAT to bring their workers in contact with the wider local community, as well as to bring Syrian culture closer to Berlin. For this reason, they have designed their business in a way that would attract a predominately German clientele, to which they can present digestible amounts of “Syrian culture.” From the aesthetics of the eatery and foodbikes, fashionably painted in bright colors and bold patterns matching their “street food” theme, to the dishes themselves, REFUEAT has specialized on bringing their staff into contact with local residents, as one of the business owners told us in an interview: “That’s kind of the point of our project. That’s also why we’re positioned in a way to attract German customers, not Arabs.” Accordingly, REFUEAT headquarters are not located in a city area with strong migrant presence. Otherwise, the owner said, “the place would probably look very different, and there would be completely different food on offer. Our menu is adapted in a way to appeal to the German community, because the point of this all is to bring them into relation with Germans”. REFUEAT, by facilitating encounter both in the eatery and in the public spaces that the foodbikes travel through, performs convivial solidarity to help refugees to build and sustain a new life in Berlin.

Importantly, this does not simply occur by introducing German and migrant communities to one another, but by heightening migrant visibility in public space. Moving the brightly colored foodbikes through the city, the refugees working for REFUEAT are able to claim space and visibility outside of the usual service transactions. Their movement is not merely an economic strategy, but also a political comment: one of their slogans “Streetfood aus der Heimat” (Streetfood from Home) reimagines public space by questioning what home means, who the streets are for, and how they can be consumed or practiced. The food bikes are created as a strategy to defy the organisation of public space, which makes business ownership and employment for migrants difficult. Simultaneously, migrants also learn how to navigate and inhabit public space in their new home. But this is not a unilateral process, as their movement also changes and rearranges Berlin’s landscape of food consumption and production. This way, migrants are not merely integrated into, but become part of the very making of the social fabric of Berlin’s public spaces.

The second organization, Über den Tellerrand is an initiative established in 2013 in Berlin. Its mission is also to facilitate encounter between migrants and other local populations, but this time in a kitchen space. Here, migrants guide cooking groups, and community events are hosted. Though the association started in Berlin, Über den Tellerrand was very successful in creating satellite groups, which are spread all over Germany as well as internationally. These satellite groups are self-organized community projects, where people come together to cook. Kitchen on the Run is the portable version of the project, which centres around a shipping container with an in-built kitchen. The container has travelled first through Europe, then through Germany during the summer months between 2016 and 2019, organizing community-cooking events on its way.

Like REFUEAT’s foodbikes, Kitchen on the Run’s portable kitchen is highly symbolic, especially so having been built into a shipping container: its mobility calls attention to the immobilities of the migrants whose food expertise it works with. On its journeys, the kitchen container became a knot point for different movements itself, transporting people, foods, and ideas and facilitating the crossing of paths. In 2016, Kitchen on the Run travelled through Europe. The container visited the cities of Bari in Italy, Marseille in France, Duisburg in Germany, Deventer in the Netherlands and Gothenburg in Sweden, and stayed in each location for four weeks. The journey followed a route from southern to northern Europe with a specific purpose: to indicate one of the most used routes by fleeing people and the European countries that, at the time, received the higher number of migrants. A Kitchen on the Run representative explained that the route was planned to symbolize and question that if goods can cross borders, then why people cannot. The peripatetic shipping container further underlines this strong contrast between migrant immobilities and global economic supply chains.

From 2017 to 2019, the kitchen container toured in four German locations each year, most often in small towns. The main goal in Germany was to create encounters between locals and people with migrant background, and to foster community building. This occurred through the hosting of regular, free cooking events in the container, at which migrants would be invited to teach a recipe from their country of origin to other attendees. In addition to migrants, the cooking classes were typically attended by “the classical engaged social strata,” as an organizer put it. These guests were often already familiar with the social justice issues surrounding migrants’ livelihoods in Germany, and were commonly already invested in community activism. The composition of attendees underlines the political character of the events, which may be seen as part of a strategy aiming to reimagine social relations through the medium of food, thereby aligning closely with the notion of convivial solidarity as a political performance. The cooking events allowed attendees to meet in a context that spotlights migrants’ expertise and competences by platforming them as teachers. This enables a shift in narrative, moving away from the notion of local and migrant as host and hosted, and instead directing attention to thinking about how convivial solidarity may reshape communities and economies. One of the organizers explained to us in an interview that “the idea is to break down a bit the label and not be either a refugee or a non-refugee.” By decentering the binary migrant/local status of participants, the kitchen project affords the formation of relationships that resist societal hierarchies of host and hosted. The events surrounding the Kitchen on the Run tour may therefore be considered acts of convivial solidarity that intend to bring people together and create horizontal relationships.

Initiatives like REFUEAT and Über den Tellerrand, which provide economic sustainability and opportunities for encounter and community building through convivial practices enable migrants to live on their own terms, rather than in dependence on a generous host society. By reducing economic dependency on institutional support, they help migrants to regain autonomy over their lives. Bringing together migrants and locals on equal terms and in a way that highlights migrants’ expertise, they furthermore work to deemphasize the notion of assimilation, and instead give priority to co-creation. Thereby, their convivial solidarity may be seen as producing socioeconomic sustainability with food as a medium.


Kitchen on the Run. 2020.

Refueat. 2020. Facebook.

Über den Tellerrand. 2020. Facebook.


Duru, D. 2020. A Convivial Journey: From Diversity in Istanbul to Solidarity with Refugees in Denmark. In Hemer, O. , Povrzanović Frykman, M. and Ristilammi, P-M. Conviviality at the Crossroads. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 125-143.

Tainter, J. 2006. Social Complexity and Sustainability. Ecological Complexity 3: 91-103.

Nowicka, M. and Vertovec, S. 2014. Comparing convivialities: Dreams and realities of living-with-difference. European Journal of Cultural Studies 17(4): 341–356.

Wise, A. and Noble, G. 2016. Convivialities: An Orientation. Journal of Intercultural Studies 37(5): 423–431.

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