Raphael Thelen

Virtual dinner, real connection

One man’s efforts to bring people together

At the Helem office in Hamra

Sharbel, Ahmed, John and Steffano crowd around a small table at the Helem office, an LGBT organization based in Hamra. Tabbouleh, Hummus and Labneh in small plastic containers stand between them a laptop. The four stare at the screen, their facial expressions alternating between skepticism and curiosity. All of a sudden a pixilated face pops up and a crackly voice comes through: “Hello?! Can you hear us?”


The four LGBT rights activists are part of “Virtual Dinner Guest Project,” an initiative that connects people around the world via Skype over food and conversation. At the other side of the digital table sit Otgonbaatar Tsedendemberel and Baldangomba Altangerel, the founders of the first LGBT organization in Mongolia.


“People all around the world focus too much on talking and talking about others. Instead, we have to learn to listen to others again,” says Eric Maddox, the founder of the Virtual Dinner Guest Project. For months now, the 34-year-old has been connecting people around the world. Originally from New Mexico, Maddox wanted to bring people together from his area with people from Mexico to fight against prejudices.


“The idea of having dinner together is not cute; it’s strategic,” Maddox tells NOW Extra. “Food is the oldest form of socializing. If you see someone eating, it subconsciously deconstructs your stereotypes.”


Having frequently traveled to the Middle East, Maddox saw it as a logical extension of the project to come here and fight against the prevailing stereotype of gun-clutching, Kouffieh-wearing Palestinians. “I want to give people an opportunity to tell their own truth.”


Focusing on conflict, Maddox connects communities that are in conflict with each other or communities that experience a shared conflict – like the LGBT activists from Lebanon and Mongolia. In other instances, Maddox would connect a family in Cairo to a Middle Eastern Studies class given in the US, or activists in Tunisia with their peers in Lebanon.


At the Helem office, the group soon overcomes its initial skepticism. After several moments of awkward silence, someone blurts out, “What are you guys eating over there?” and the ice is immediately broken. Filled plates are presented to the camera and laughter from both sides soon fills the room.


As the conversation picks up, the two groups realize that they have much in common: Both organizations know the difficulties of getting officially registered as well as experience the hardships of social exclusion. “Before our work, there was not even a word for LGBT in Mongolia,” says Otgonbaatar. “It was the same here. No words at all, or only negative ones,” replies 25-year-old Ahmed.


The six activists go on to share strategies and experiences regarding their advocacy work. The Helem team knows many of the obstacles that may arise, considering that it was founded before the Mongolia LGBT Center. The group from Mongolia shares its ideas of planned publicity stunts. The one thing holding back the conversation is Lebanon’s notoriously slow Internet connection. Four or five times, the group has to hang up and call again in hopes of establishing a better connection. At one point, the six guys drop the video option.


“I have plans to further develop the project,” says Maddox. “Words are cheap, and I want to believe that there is a real social impact after the Virtual Dinners.” To get there, he plans to extend the number of meetings per group to three. Thereby the groups have ample time to get to know each other before deciding on a project to implement in their respective communities.


After the Tabbouleh is eaten and only smears of Hummus remain in the container, the six activists agree to stay in touch. Ahmed wants to hear more about the Mongolia’s film festival, while Otgonbaatar and Baldangomba are interested in learning how to bolster their support base.

“The food really breaks the nervousness and tension you feel before it starts,” Ahmed tells NOW Extra after the end of the dinner. “And what surprised me the most was that we are not that culturally different; rather, we share a common struggle.”


Visit the Virtual Dinner Guest Project’s website to learn more about the organization.


Helem activists take part in the Virtual Dinner Guest Project, which aims to connect people around the world via Skype over food and conversation. (Photo by Raphael Thelen)

“Before our work, there was not even a word for LGBT in Mongolia,” says Otgonbaatar.