End of an era but a new beginning for Tamil Feasts

By Indira Laisram
Emma McCann (centre) with the Tamil Feast team

Most stories on refugees often revolve around transit, but the story of Nirma and three of his other refugee mates from Sri Lanka is one that lifts the palate

In 2009, Nirmathan Murugamoorthy or Nirma as he is known, left his home in East Batticaloa of Sri Lanka and joined 32 others on a fishing boat that brought them straight to Christmas Island. “It was a 27-day journey with bouts of seasickness during the first one week,” recalls Nirma.  He spent six and half years in immigration detention, moving centres from Christmas Island, where he stayed for the first 20 months, to Darwin to Maribyrnong to Broadmeadows in Victoria.

“We were locked up for those many years,” says Nirma. And sleep was the one resonant theme of his life. “We didn’t know what time we woke up or slept. When we woke up we cooked, but only one time a day.”

It was finally at the detention centre at Broadmeadows that Nirma was recognised as a long-time detainee. That meant he could enjoy small privileges such as preparing and cooking his own meal. It was a welcome change as he looked forward to cooking his own “rice and vegetables”.

It was then that he began poring over memories of food and recipes from back home, those that he learnt from his parents and grandmother. What was special was also the fact that he could share his meals with the other detainees, about 56 of them.

Nirma (second from left) with Tamil Feast team

Interestingly, Broadmeadows being a new detention centre at the time had many challenges as everything was new and there were many people visiting the centre, says Nirma. “I was isolated from the people and the community. Mentally and physically, I felt frozen and unable to move.”

It was during this time that he became friends with one of the regular visitors. The friend was working at Ceres, a unique, non-profit centre offering an organic grocery and cafe, nursery and environmental education. The friendship would change the course of his life, to an extent.

So, in 2015 when Nirma was released from detention, Ceres gave him and his friends a good opportunity to work through their Asylum Seekers’ Program. Nirma had become friends with Sri, Nigethan and Niro while they were in detention in Broadmeadows. Interestingly, Sri and Nigethan originally met on the same boat that brought them both to Australia. Now, all of them were together again at Ceres.

The friends initially started with an event “Hey let’s have a FEAST”, the tickets for which were sold out within a week. Then they went on to create a series of dinner events making it one of the popular social food projects aimed at raising awareness for Melbourne’s asylum-seeker community. It created a special space and has served nearly 35,000 people in the past six years.

What made Tamil Feasts compelling was the raw candour Nirma and his friends brought to the project. “Tamil Feasts was just not about food. Everything – from the stories of our life and experiences to how we came together were told here,” says Nirma.

Sadly, all good stories come to an end. On July 31, Tamil Feasts will be serving its last feast,  a fallout of the current pandemic. “This is the end of an era, and a timely positive beginning for our team,” says Ceres in a statement.

Nirma (right)

Emma McCann, who has been managing Tamil Feasts for three years, says, “Once we announced we are closing, we sold out.” However, she has other plans to revive memories of Tamil Feasts at the ‘reimagined’ Merri Café which opens on August 19.

“Some of the men will be joining Merri Cafe but we won’t have a Tamil Feasts menu as such. Hopefully, we  will be able to put some Tamil Feasts item on the menu. We are told that once restrictions lift, we could do a cultural night again or have the boys back as guest chefs perhaps once a month to do some feasts,” says Emma.

Nirma is venturing on to a cleaning business putting to good use his business management background. “I am a bit sad,” he says. “Tamil Feasts was our baby and I was there for five years.”

In time, it became the place associated with home. “People loved us. Sometimes we met people from America, Canada and other places who told us they heard lots of stories about Tamil Feasts,” says Nirma.

Emma looks back on the feast nights as something very special in themselves. “When you have a group of volunteers that have been coming for years, it’s quite a community feel and like a celebration every time. That was an appeal to people as well. When they came, they loved the atmosphere of the feasts, which was like family and not so much like a commercial enterprise.”

Emma has been in the business of food for 25 years and as manager for Ceres has worked with refugees for about 10 years now. “I always wanted to do something a bit more fulfilling within this industry and helped people develop their skills rather than just working in the kitchen.”

She hopes to start a training program at Merri Café next year, one that will be open to all nationalities.

For Nirma, it has been 11 years in Australia. He remains an asylum seeker and has no idea when his status will change to permanent resident. But thanks to the experiences at Ceres and Tamil Feasts, he finds the world still resolutely beautiful.

This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas. 

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