Sukhmani Khorana: Migrants and food during COVID-19: Stories of Destitution, Enterprise and Solidarity

My social media feeds over the last couple of months have been highlighting stories of temporary migrants and international students who have been left stranded during the pandemic by a mix of circumstance and policy. One of these posts, from the Federation of Ethnic Communities Council of Australia (FECCA), called attention to a recent Fairfax media article that began with a story of a Colombian chef. While he has lived in Australia for ten years and paid his fair share of taxes, he and his young family are adrift after he was stood down from his job at a Townsville restaurant.

The irony of a food worker unable to put three meals on the table is not lost on me. What is more than merely ironic is Australia’s bipartisan defence of multiculturalism on the grounds of enrichment of local culture (primarily through food in and out of the home), and the institutional abandonment of the very people who are still too precarious to claim their dues.

Meanwhile, several stories have also emerged of ‘ethnic restaurants’, amongst others types of food establishments, turning into social enterprises of a sort during the crisis. Many of these are using crowd-funding campaigns to support their efforts to feed temporary migrants and overseas students who have been rendered jobless. This is undoubtedly a better demonstration of intra-community care and migrant solidarities than seen during the Indian international student crisis of 2009-2010. At that time, migrants who had been living in Australia for a while and characterised as the ‘model minority’ were pitted against disenchanted students. In the contemporary moment of crisis, groups such as Sikh Volunteers Australia have extended their support beyond vulnerable non-citizens. The Project on Channel Ten, and other mainstream media platforms, have featured stories of this cluster of enterprising migrant volunteers as they are seen cooking curries for firefighters during the bushfires earlier this year, as well as dropping off meal boxes to hundreds of elderly citizens forced into quarantine in the face of COVID-19.

Before March 2020, when coronavirus-related local shutdowns were a distant reality, many enterprising Australians were using #IWillEatWithYou to champion Chinese restaurants that were rapidly losing clientele. On the one hand, this abandonment of Chinese-Australian food establishments has now morphed into daily instances of racial abuse towards Asian Australians. On the other, using food to show solidarity towards racialized groups has a longer history in Australia and comparable immigrant nations, as I explore in my book, The Tastes and Politics of Inter-cultural Food in Australia. For instance, after the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States in 2016, several groups organized to share food with their neigbours, immigrants and refugees. One such group is the ‘Syria Supper Club’ in northern New Jersey which organised weekly dinners where Syrian refugees were breaking bread with people in the area who had signed up online.

Give this history, what’s new is that many of these communities, who may have been targeted by eruptions of hate speech and/or violence in the past are coming forth to assist those rendered most materially vulnerable now.

What these tales of precarity and agency tell us is that migrants, like any other demographic in Australia, are not a homogeneous bunch. Often recruited into the workforce of this country to be productive ‘cogs’ in the wheel, they can be rendered marginal and destitute when the machinery malfunctions, but can also rise above the instrumentalising discourse of productivity through compassionate acts of volunteering during a crisis. The offering of help, especially via food, is not confined to migrants who have the material resources to do so. In addition to be being at the frontline of the crisis and needing assistance, refugees across the world are familiar with the exigencies of extraordinary times, and have also been volunteering their cooking, shopping and sowing services.

So what is new about migrants and food, especially in a settler colonial multicultural society like Australia in the midst of the pandemic? The challenges of COVID-19 might be unprecedented for many social groups, but they have been experienced in one form or another by most migrants and refugees. Also, while many academic studies and migrant advocacy bodies have been calling for greater attention to listening and responding to their voices and recognising their agency, the current circumstances make these calls even more pressing. What we need isn’t yet another ‘Harmony Day’ that celebrates food from different cultures, but doesn’t talk to those serving the food about anything other than their enriching spices and costumes. Nor do we want to fall into the simplistic trap of condemning all migrant-initiated food initiatives as pandering to white tastes.

This insight on migrants and refugees as more than mere economic contributors or burdens on the state has the potential to impact multicultural policy and on-the-ground action. Instead of abandoning multiculturalism as an ideal and cornerstone of nation-building in these times of a global upsurge in xenophobia and populism, this is an opportunity to re-fashion it as resilient and enriching the civic fabric. Local councils in particular can play a leading role in working with migrants and refugees in their communities to facilitate their enterprises during and beyond the pandemic. In the realm of advocacy, what continues to be a gaping hole is the absence of explicitly-articulated solidarities towards those facing racism in the present moment. While prominent Chinese-Australians have issued several appeals in this regard, it is now up to the rest of us to back them up, and not merely eat their food or at their restaurants.


Short bio

Sukhmani Khorana is a Vice Chancellor’s Senior Research Fellow at the Young and Resilient Research Centre at Western Sydney University. Previously, she was a Senior Lecturer in Cultural Studies at the University of Wollongong. Sukhmani has published extensively on diasporic cultures, multi-platform refugee narratives, and the politics of empathy. She is the author of The Tastes and Politics of Inter-Cultural Food in Australia (RLI).


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