We watched on in excited anticipation as people started to arrive. Our fingers were crossed that the semi-cloudy February Sunday wouldn’t get an ounce greyer, and that the months of hard work we put into Soul Food Festival would pay off.
The original inspiration for this festival comes from a desire to change the narrative surrounding migrants and refugees. As a society, at best we’ve been conditioned to worry (rightfully) about dangerous conditions this population faces. We (mis)judge migrants and refugees without thinking twice. We only imagine them in extremely negative situations, either stealing jobs or sleeping in dirty, crowded refugee camps, and we forget to disassociate their humanness from their immigration status. Before the recent plight of Ukrainian refugees, we couldn’t fathom that refugees had lives similar to our own (now this validation stops at white, Christian Ukrainian refugees), or assume that their goals could possibly be similar to ours. The media focuses its depictions on the few negative examples that exist and the sad details of the complex, inter-continental journeys migrants and refugees are on. Often these stories are orchestrated to breed fear and encourage separation, instead of solidarity and compassion.
Soul Food strives to change this. We are careful about the information we share about our young members. We only post dignified photos of them looking like normal young people, because that’s what they are. This is also one reason we don’t show their faces online. We staunchly agree with the growing understanding that the most commonly shown images make viewers dehumanize migrants and refugees. We don’t believe that storytelling has to involve this form of pity and find that it’s easier to focus on the bigger picture when we are not focused on their faces. Instead, at Soul Food we choose to focus on their interests, talents, opinions, and special moments we are privileged to share with them. These considerations went into planning Soul Food Festival.
Throughout the day, people poured in. In addition to the baked pastries that were donated by our partners, they enjoyed food prepared in collaboration with Chefs Simone Auscher, Maxime Bonnabry Duval and Luis Miguel Andrade. The West African-inspired meal was created using unsold ingredients that would have otherwise been wasted and traditional products from La Goutte d'Or, the African neighborhood in northern Paris. The menu included a vegetarian take on the classic pot-au-feu, wrapped in a buckwheat crepe with a mustard cream sauce. The two main dishes were soupe kandia, made with okra, tomatoes and marinated beef, and saka-saka, made with cassava leaves. Both were served with plantains and rice. For dessert, a young Soul Food member evoked a dessert he regularly ate back home in Mali: beignets. They were served with pieces of fresh and confit oranges, and guests had the choice between a chocolate tonka bean sauce or a salted butter caramel sauce. Young members proudly helped Luis Miguel dress and serve plates of their delicious creations until they sold out (early). They enjoyed working together around this shared appreciation of their culinary culture, and were proud of what they accomplished.
The festival program was full of diverse artistic performances and activities. Musicians from the Goutte d’Or played traditional instruments and a local DJ spun a collection of Afro-Caribbean, Latino, funk, and Afrobeatrecords. We reproduced a drawing workshop that a young Soul Food member came up with for a previous edition of the festival, and added an art contest and a collaborative, ephemeral art project on an over-sized window. The window project turned into a collective art performance as attendees, Soul Food volunteers and young members used white markers to answer the question, “What feeds your soul?”
People who came to Soul Food Festival were able to learn about Soul Food’s nonprofit initiatives, but perhaps more importantly, they had the opportunity to unlearn preconceived notions about migrants and refugees. Instead of focusing the narrative around their difficult situations, we ate their food, saw them smiling proudly, enjoyed the same music, and created art together. This doesn’t take away from our collective empathy. It actually does the opposite, as all funds raised during Soul Food Festival go directly to our nonprofit initiatives, which help young migrants and refugees. Our festival was a joyful celebration of art, diversity and solidarity. The diversity present was refreshingly beautiful and authentic, and exactly what is needed in order to change the way the world perceives this population.
Migrants and refugees are not the crisis, but the narratives we spread about them are. With Soul Food Festival we continue to challenge problematic narratives, and offer a positive, representative alternative, while also directly contributing to initiatives that help them.