Would you open your doors - and your dinner table - to immigrant families? In the Czech Republic, a project called Next Door Family aims to connect disparate communities, via food.
It's a cold, gray, November afternoon in Prague, but in a modest flat in the city's slightly drab Strasnice suburb, the atmosphere is warm and cozy. Jiri Nemec and his partner Leona Dankova are working hard on a late Sunday lunch of wienerschnitzel and boiled potatoes, chicken soup and an apple pie. At their table are some rather special guests.
Kenneth and Vivian Munonye are Nigerian immigrants to the Czech Republic. They relocated to Prague for Kenneth's IT job. The two are finding out that they have a lot in common with Jiri and Leona: both couples are in their thirties and have two young kids. Though Jiri and Leona have just met the Nigerian couple, the visit brings back good memories.
“We often travel,” Leona said. “We were in Africa and Asia many times, and we enjoyed the differences, we liked it, and I miss it a bit in the Czech Republic. There aren't many foreigners here and I also want to show my children the differences.”
Next Door Family
The project the two couples are taking part in is called Next Door Family. It's aimed at forging friendships and understanding between immigrants and locals - wherever those locals are. Since the project's launch in Prague in 2004, Next Door Family has expanded to Hungary, Italy, Slovakia and Portugal. Just this year, Belgium, Spain and Malta also joined in.
Around 1,000 families - Czech and foreign - have taken part in the Next Door Family project since its launch. Every year in November, around 100 families sit down to something of a ‘blind date lunch.'
The NGO that runs it, Slovo 21, says around 60 percent of families stay in touch after the initial lunch. Some become firm friends.
Around half a million foreigners living in the Czech Republic according to the most recent census - 5 percent of the country's population of 10.2 million. In Prague, the number rises to 15 percent. Czechs also have a reputation as being rather unfriendly to foreigners, sometimes displaying a hostility that can border on xenophobia. After eight years in Prague, Kenneth has his own view.
“When you say unfriendly, I wouldn't say yes to that,” he said. “But cold, yes. Not all of them, but a reasonable amount of them are cold. But that doesn't mean they are unfriendly. They are really friendly if you get to know them, but initiating that process at times is a bit difficult.”
As Nigerians, Kenneth and Vivian are the exception in Prague. Immigrants to the city typically come from Ukraine and Vietnam. The latter have an almost exclusive monopoly on the city's corner shops, which Czechs rely on for fresh produce and late opening hours.
But apart from exchanging money at the cash register, Czechs and Vietnamese have almost nothing to do with each other. That clearly bother's Leona's partner Jiri.
“We don't know anything about the Vietnamese community, but there are quite a lot of them. I don't like the way people often behave towards them. So I would like to invite them to this dinner, for example.”