Love in a cold climate: the contested fridge by Yasmin Gunaratnam  

2017-12-22 12.02.25

I’ve spent time looking at the photograph of this fridge. If it looks a little too ordered and tidy that could be because you’re peering into a laboratory of British sanctuary. The fridge is a part of a network of households that are offering a temporary home to destitute migrants, asylum seekers and refugees who have been personally and economically broken by immigration policies. For the past few months I’ve been interviewing and taking part in the activities of some of these hosts in Oxford and London. The photo comes from a household of six people, four of them guests. The fridge was mentioned in passing as “the contested fridge” in a pre-interview conversation about the daily give-and-take of living with strangers. Playful and evocative terms like these swim into a researcher’s imagination. I asked for a photo of the fridge. In “contested” I heard the ripples of the fraught ethical and political tensions of hospitality discussed by philosophers and social scientists. “Can hospitality, as it entails welcoming, be seen as completely devoid of mastery and ultimately control of one’s own space?”, Meyda Yegenoglu (2005, p.141) has asked.

Hosting might begin with a sparky impulse. At other times there’s a longer trail of generosity spilling out from faith or political commitments. Some talk of learning about other cultural worlds. A few want to redistribute and release resources. But who knows where it might end? A room for a few nights, weeks or months? A lifelong friendship? Perhaps a small space in a fridge or cupboard? Whatever is offered, however big-hearted, can become overshadowed and diminished. I have been noticing how many hosts describe what they do as “small”. Each offers sanctuary for different reasons. They do not really know if they will make a meaningful difference or what changes might unfurl as alternatives to the aggression and xenophobia of so many government responses to a world on the move. But somewhere in a home not too far from you—in a room, a drawer, across a table, in a fridge— is the domestic figuring out of a welcome that is a refusal of the louder clarion call to hostility and self-centeredness. As improvised, inconsistent, renegade and freakily idealistic as sanctuary can be, there’s a kind of guerilla organizing behind all those neat lines of plastic tubs and packets.

Yasmin Gunaratnam teaches in the Sociology department at Goldsmiths. The research on ‘Cartographies of Hospitality’ is led by Fataneh Farahani at Stockholm University.

 

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