Situated in a Dublin backyard, a group of people congregate, many meeting for the first time. Though most of them are unfamiliar with one another, they already have two things in common. One is that they’ve moved from far corners of the world to settle in their new home of Ireland, the other is that a lot of them belong to the queer community.
Some of them have lived here for a long time, others not so much. Their diverse heritages are represented through the food that is set on the table. The invigorating aromas of the various cuisines waft out from the kitchen window, with traditional dishes from Afghanistan, Somali and the rest of the African continent.
Sometimes they play games, one of which I know as Secrets: You pull a piece of paper out of a hat and talk about what the unknown person has written on it. It’s the game you play when you want to know more about the other people involved. These people are integrating in ways that connect us all: food and conversation.
It’s the backyard of Beryl Ohas, the recipient of this year’s LGBTQ+ Person of the Year award. She organises these food events regularly and has met the people she invites through her work as a cultural mediator with the International Organisation for Migration. These newcomers to Ireland have experienced a monumental culture shock, with many travelling from other continents, where senses of humour, cuisine and other cultural customs are vastly different. Beryl opens her home to them, aiming to forge a connection through food from their home countries, “because we live to eat”.
We spoke a few days ahead of the GALAS before she won the crown jewel award of the night, given to someone who constantly champions queer rights in the public arena. The activist mentioned these food events early in the conversation and looking back, that was the first indication as to why she deserved the accolade.
She said, “I tend to organise small parties just to unify people and the best way to do that is actually by sharing food, so people can bond over something. They get to make friends and meet some people who already live here. They also learn how to get to know the community at large.”
Ohas recalled her experience of working with Cooking for Freedom, an organisation comprised of refugees in Direct Provision centres cooking their traditional foods. She found out that many of the people in these centres go without eating at the canteen as a result of the overwhelming culture shock.
“Sometimes, they are afraid to go out, and a lot of the time they can’t afford the places in Dublin where they would like to go. I figured I had a space that was free. So if I use my kitchen, and there are ingredients, they get to make the kind of food that they’d be eating at home. It’s really hard to just come in and get used to everything, especially food. You need time to adjust to that. If somebody gives you a space to make something that you truly love while you’re getting used to it all, that is the number one platform for slowly integrating.”
Ohas recognised the vital need for new and improved methods of integration after moving to Ireland from Kenya in 2019. She was also involved with LGBTQ+ organisations and worked on ‘No Hate’ campaigns with some of the prominent queer organisations in the country. She continued, “In my country, same-sex relationships are not legal, with sentencing of up to 14 years imprisonment. I couldn’t be myself, so being here and realising the fact that now I’m free, I can express myself the way I want.”
In her article for GCN in October 2022, the activist noted that even though she can now be free as a queer person in Ireland, it’s not as easy as “just being out all at once”.
She recounted the “dehumanising” immigration process that she endured, involving pervasive questions relating to her identity. Some of these included asking when was the last time she had sex, whether she enjoyed it and how many same-sex partners she had in her life. The questions stemmed from Western expectations of queerness, which are not applicable to the vast array of cultures these interviewers will encounter.
“You’re not just doing it because you have to do it, you’re doing it out of passion, to help someone genuinely...
Speaking about the interview process, Ohas said, “These experiences have shaped me in that I continue to speak out and aim to work on solutions, in order to educate these interviewers, instead of making you feel as if you’re less of an LGBTQ+ person.”
This ignited her vocation as a cultural mediator. “I finished my interview and I reached out to some organisations that work with newly arrived asylum seekers and refugees. I asked them if I would be able to conduct various workshops on interviews so that they are aware of the questions we actually get asked.”
She mentioned that even though these refugees are free from unimaginable persecution in their home countries, the effects of it take longer to heal from. Public displays of affection and having pride in your queer identity is not an easy feat after the experiences they have lived through. “The way that the Western application process perceives other people- Muslim, LGBTQ+ people, Asian - needs more cultural mediation. It’s not easy to be out all at once – there’s still that constant fear.”
Mediation in this sense is the way we can link the cultural and social spheres of people from different countries. Her job is to help refugees understand these cultural contrasts they will face, given the anxieties the sudden change can engender. She informs them about the new modes of bureaucracy and social norms. She continued, “I mostly work with newly arrived refugees, taking them to interviews, and sometimes interpreting, helping service users with information on how they can integrate and go about getting jobs.”
In essence, she aids these people through an overwhelming transitionary period in their lives, a lot of them queer folk. On the other end of it, she helps to diversify and enrich the Irish LGBTQ+ community with new cultures, by helping these newcomers and Irish people to integrate. Speaking about Irish queer society, she said, “It is quite welcoming.” She laughed, “You’re so welcome that you’re like ‘Wait a minute – am I dreaming?’”
She added, “If you go to the likes of Street 66 or The George, you’re most likely going to be talking to absolutely everybody. It’s very interesting, the kind of sessions they have there. They’re educative and informative. You can easily make friends, and that’s nice, it’s very progressive from what I’m used to. When I go to Direct Provision centres to talk with LGBTQ+ people, those are the first places that I will recommend. They can start from there, make friends and from there they can make their own crowds where they feel welcome.”
Though Beryl has achieved so much during her time in Ireland, and is sure to do a lot more, she acknowledged that it wasn’t done alone. She recognised, “LGBT Ireland, specifically Collette, has been good at reaching out to me, telling me what’s going on. If they’re having various sessions, she’ll invite me to attend. The more I attend them I realise that it’s really inclusive. It’s very important, encouraging and supportive toward the newly arrived people. It makes you feel at home.”
Regarding the other groups she collaborates with, she said, “The Immigrant Council of Ireland, and the Irish Refugee Council are the organisations that have really empowered and pushed me to continue in the work that I do. You know, we all need mentors and people who have your back and make you feel like you’re home, you’re family, you’re a tribe. I for sure wouldn’t be receiving this nomination if it wasn’t for these organisations.”
The GALAS 2023 LGBTQ+ Person of The Year concluded, “I feel honoured to have been nominated in this space, it motivates me to do my part. I can’t cover all areas or represent everybody, but I have realised I need to focus on things I’ve personally experienced. It’s easier to help in adding to society in areas you’ve gone through. You’re not just doing it because you have to do it, you’re doing it out of passion, to help somebody genuinely.”
Though it’s true that one person cannot help everyone, it is clear that the activist has made a lasting and inconceivable impact on those whom she has. Drawing on personal experiences, namely missing home foods and a traumatic immigration process, she has undertaken outstanding work to achieve better conditions for LGBTQ+ asylum seekers in Ireland. Besides the food from her kitchen, this community has been well served by the efforts of Beryl Ohas.