When Eleni Christou visited the Greek island of Kos in 2015, she had little idea that she would be heading into the epicentre of an unprecedented global refugee crisis.
Spurred by the growing conflict in Syria, refugee arrivals in Greece rose 750 per cent between 2014 and 2015, with the majority of the 124,000 people arriving on the islands of Lesvos, Chios, Kos, Samos and Leros.
Seeing firsthand the experiences of people leaving their homes in search of safety was one of the factors behind Eleni’s connection to SSI’s New Beginnings Festival for Refugee Week, where her installation for the Community Kouzina project will be on display as part of the Singular/Plural exhibition until 2 July.
“I still don’t know how to describe being there in this moment of history, among people who were in the middle of this difficult journey but feeling extremely liberated because they had made it to Greece,” Ms Christou said.
“There was an element of feeling safe but also the uncertainty of what lies ahead when, or if, they got to their final destination.”
During her stay, Ms Christou became close with a young woman from Syria, who shared a parting gift before heading to the Greek mainland to continue her journey.
“I was waiting with her at the ferry until it left and she gave me a packet of biscuits that she had brought with her from Syria. They had come with her on this incredible journey, leaving Syria, going through Turkey and on the boat to Greece.”
For the young woman, the biscuits were a reminder of a homeland left behind.
Along with volunteering with refugees on Kos, Eleni was also running cooking sessions with locals that would form the basis of the first iteration of Community Kouzina. The project comprises both an installation and online components, emphasising methods of food creation, preparation and sourcing as symbols of expression, personality, heritage, community and solidarity.
“Food is definitely something that transcends borders. It’s something uniting that a lot of people can relate to. It’s a source of pride,” Ms Christou said.
“It was fascinating that this young woman gave me a food item, because of the project I was doing. It also made me think about how packaged food can be really symbolic for people. It was a commercial, industrial food; it wasn’t homemade. But this young woman had a strong sense of attachment to it.”
Community Kouzina shared a gallery space with the New Beginnings art exhibition last year — an experience that Eleni has built on in 2017 with a new installation and a special series of recipes and stories collected from people who came to Australia as refugees.
“New Beginnings signifies opportunities to reset and refresh our perspective, our behaviour and our being. That we can we can challenge the routine, the stereotype, the 'norm' and inequality. Every new beginning is a warm embrace for change,” Ms Christou said.
“Celebrating the cultural heritage of refugees and new arrivals honours their personal and collective histories; their past, their geographic journey and their future in Australia. In the current local and international political climate, it is important to engage in festivals, dialogue, and everyday behaviour recognising that borders are a human construct, are permeable, and furthermore, can be dismantled.”
Ms Christou’s Community Kouzina installation will be on display at 107 in Redfern until 2 July as part of the Singular/Plural exhibition during the New Beginnings Festival for Refugee Week. Click here for details. At the gallery, you can also purchase a zine with a collection of recipes from the special series Community Kouzina created featuring recipes and stories from people of refugee backgrounds.