Sharing food from their homeland is helping the San Francisco Bay Area’s women refugees to resettle in a new country, while raising awareness of migration and its difficulties.
As a single mother living in the world’s largest refugee camp for 21 years, Somali-born Halimo supported her family by running her own small restaurant. From 7 a.m. until 6 p.m. each day, the mother of three fed more than 100 residents of Kenya’s Dadaab camp, serving up her signature dish of malawah – a sweet Somali pancake.
It’s a recipe Halimo shares – along with her story of resettling to the U.S. in 2011 – in “Between Meals,” a cookbook celebrating the food and lives of California’s refugee women.
Welcoming some 1,400 refugees each year, the San Francisco Bay Area is home to people fleeing conflict or deprivation across the globe, from Afghanistan and Burma to Nepal and Sri Lanka. And for more than 30 years, Bay Area nonprofit Refugee Transitions has been supporting newcomers through education, family engagement and community leadership programs.
The “Between Meals” cookbook project grew out of Refugee Transitions’ home-based tutoring program – a core plank of its work that connects low-income, high-need newcomers with community volunteers who teach them English and life skills. Through sharing meals with their host families and new communities, refugee women share their traditions and much-loved foods but also talk about the experiences that have brought them to their new home.
From Halimo’s Somali malawah pancakes to Naw Htoo’s coconut chicken soup from Thailand, from Arezo’s Afghan meat dumplings to Devi’s goat curry from Nepal, every single recipe tells a story.
Arezo and her family arrived in California from Afghanistan in 2010, when it was no longer safe to live in their native Kabul. Arezo misses her homeland, and the feeling of being surrounded by a large community. So she cooks to remember home and creates meals to connect with new friends. Her meat dumplings (mantu) are made with Japanese gyoza skins from a Mexican market in San Jose in California.
“Mantu is special to me because my mother made it for me the day I found out I was pregnant with my first child,” says Arezo. “I make mantu in California, especially when I miss Kabul and my family in Afghanistan.”
Laura Vaudreuil, executive director at Refugee Transitions, says food plays a significant part in the refugee journey: “Culinary traditions are a thread that connects these women to their homeland, to the personal and cultural history. ‘Between Meals’ is our contribution to preserving these (often disappearing) traditions, and highlighting refugee women’s experiences and expertise, which are so often undervalued.”
To create the cookbook, the volunteer tutor would spend between two and four hours a week with their student to hear their story, cook together and turn their dish into a recipe. Volunteers are trained in the “language experience approach,” which uses familiar subjects such as a food to accelerate language learning.
“Between Meals” author Lauren Markham says the process of recipe and story gathering led to “deepening connections” between volunteers and their students. “When Refugee Transitions matched refugee students with a new volunteer, families were often really excited to have visitors and met them with tea, snacks or even a four-course meal,” says Markham.
“The food was so delicious and the gestures so loving. [Refugee] women may not have worked in their home country so they don’t think of cooking as a skill. In an age of celebrity chefs, all of these wonderful home chefs are under-recognized.”
One of the hardest parts of the cookbook project was turning the student’s instinctive process of creating a familiar dish into a more precise process of measuring ingredients and cooking times. “You have to see the techniques for yourself and a lot of them were new to the volunteers,” explains Markham.
Another challenge was sourcing ingredients for these traditional dishes – from locating a goat farm an hour’s drive from Oakland to make goat curry to tracking down galangal root ginger in a Chinatown market for a Burmese chicken stew.
Vaudreuil says cross-cultural bonds like those created through the cookbook project are hugely beneficial to newcomers seeking to become self-sufficient and integrate into their adopted communities.
But it’s a two-way street. “Often, volunteer tutors tell us that they have benefited as much from the partnership as their students did. After all, tutoring exposes one to new knowledge, intelligence and perspectives that newcomers bring with them to the U.S.,” says Vaudreuil.
The project has been supported by Cal Humanities, an independent nonprofit state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities. All profits from sales of “Between Meals” are distributed among the women who contributed to the cookbook, which has just printed its second edition.
“‘Between Meals’ boldly strikes new ground by centralizing the stories of the powerful women featured and elevating them as historians, keepers of culture and preservers of food traditions, as well as cooks,” says chef, educator and author Bryant Terry.
Arezo learned to make jalebi – a deep-fried syrupy sweet served at birthdays, weddings and other special occasions – from her mother at the age of 13. “In our religion, Islam, it says to eat together – to talk, to enjoy. This goes, too, for cooking … Everyone loves jalebi. When I make it in California, it reminds me of many happy times.”