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This year again, 70 families in Czechia will experience an unusual lunch thanks to Family Next Door (Rodina odvedle), an innovative project of Slovo 21 association. Czech families and families of Ukrainian refugees who have never seen each other will sit down to eat together at various places of the republic. Slovo 21 has been connecting people in this innovative way for twenty years. More than a half of the families involved in the project continue to visit each other. By the end of the year, there will be 35 meetings all over the Czech Republic. Unlike in previous years, the families are free to pick a date that suits them, there won’t be the same date and time for everyone. They only have to make it before the end of the year.
One of the families takes on the role of a host and prepares a festive lunch for the other one. “Food has always been connecting people and that is the main idea of our project,” says Ljiljana Batovanja, coordinator of the Family Next Door Project.
Organisers match the registered families based on various criteria. “We always try to match people who could get along and have a lot in common. This means they are roughly the same age, have similar education, hobbies or children of the same age. We simply want them to have an unforgettable day together and to become friends for years. That is our main goal,” explains Batovanja, adding that an assistant is also present at each meeting to help the families get rid of any initial shyness.
Since 2004, nearly 1,800 families have met for lunch in this way, so over 5,000 people in total. About 60% of the families involved in the project continue to visit each other for years after their first meeting within Family Next Door. For example Masha’s family from Ukraine that joined the project last year has been in contact with their Czech match. “Meeting the Bernášek family was amazing. We were surprised by how much they knew about Ukraine. They had been there several times before they had children. They were very sorry that they couldn’t go there again because of the war,” says Masha, who made traditional borscht and golubtsy, cabbage leaves stuffed with meat, for her guests.
The project Family Next Door was awarded the SozialMarie prize for its originality and innovativeness. At the end of 2013, the Maurer Family Foundation awarded Family Next Door as one of the best gastronomy projects that help socially disadvantaged people. The European Commission has described Family Next Door as one of the best ways to integrate foreigners in society. The format of bringing together majority society families and families of foreigners has been adopted by seven other European countries – Belgium, Malta, Spain, Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland.