Breaking Bread, Breaking Barriers: Refugees Share Their Cultures Through Culinary Diplomacy
On any given Thursday evening in New Haven, Sharifa Zareen may be teaching curious New Haven residents how to make banjan borani, a baked eggplant dish, or traditional mantou (meat-filled) or aushak (leek-filled) Afghan-style dumplings. Through the recently-launched program Sanctuary Kitchen, Sharifa is one of many refugee cooks who are able to share their cultures and experiences through food.
Sanctuary Kitchen is one of many new initiatives that provide employment for refugees, integrate new residents into existing communities, and educate Americans about foreign cuisines through an ancient medium: food. Programs such as Sanctuary Kitchen in New Haven and Newcomer Kitchen in Toronto connect talented refugee cooks with hungry residents, building a new kind of grassroots culinary diplomacy centered around the dinner table.
Though Sanctuary Kitchen is less than a year old, its programming has expanded to include cooking lessons, supper clubs, and catered events. Program cooks hail from a variety of countries, including Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Sudan.
The monthly cooking classes are small, usually capped at fifteen to twenty people. Participants learn recipes, techniques, and traditions from the instructors, enjoying a meal together at the end of the lesson. Interpreters often facilitate communication between the two groups, but even without words, classes still come together and learn about each other over food. Sanctuary Kitchen Manager Sumiya Khan told The Politic that she remembers one such scenario when an interpreter was not present. The lesson went on, and through a limited vocabulary and many emphatic gestures, both cooks and guests left feeling satisfied.
“Between the little bit of English they did know and showing how to prepare [the food], they…felt like that had accomplished something significant. They were able to practice their English, they were able to teach someone their cuisine, and everybody was happy and they were sharing their stories and laughing and it was really beautiful to see that.”
Faridoon and Sharifa Zareen are an Afghan couple who became involved with Sanctuary Kitchen in 2017. Sharifa has cooked at multiple events, including a class and a pop-up restaurant event at Atticus Bookstore in New Haven. Faridoon says he and wife felt welcomed by the other cooks, the hosts, and the guests at the event. “Everybody was happy to meet [us] and happy to get that kind of food from different countries or culture. That was an amazing experience for us,” he told The Politic.
The two also emphasized that for them, the program is about more than teaching. Because refugees from many countries are involved with Sanctuary Kitchen, people from widely different cultural backgrounds end up cooking side by side. “We also learned about other cultures’ foods—what they eat, what they cook[…] we learned African food, and Middle Eastern food,” Faridoon said.
Sam Chapple-Sokol, a graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University has published multiple articles on the theme of culinary diplomacy, connecting the new field to two popular ideas in international relations scholarship: non-verbal communication and nation-building.
Non-verbal communication is exactly what it sounds like: ways in which governments, organizations, and groups communicate through actions instead of words. Chapple-Sokol says that he believes that non-verbal communication can facilitate understanding and connection between groups of citizens, but emphasizes that it takes work from both sides.
“I’d like to think that there can be communication in both a verbal and a non-verbal way through the food, through the experience to convey all of that deep history. Not just that the person who [goes to a refugee-hosted event] goes to support a refugee and goes home, but more goes to learn, or more goes to experience Syria, or goes to experience Afghanistan, or whatever country through the eyes of the chef, through the eyes of the person who was preparing the food and preparing the meal”
Sharing food is a form of nation branding—building collective knowledge of a culture through cuisine. Through the process of nation-branding, refugees gain visibility and recognition in a society that is often unaware of their presence. Chapple-Sokol’s scholarship suggests that for refugee communities, normalizing and popularizing their cuisine is a major step towards acceptance into a new society. He emphasizes the power refugee chefs have to tell narratives not found in popular media: “[Refugee chefs] are the bridge to an older Syria, a Syria that no longer exists[…] Chefs can be the link from their idealized past version and American consumers who don’t have access to that because nobody was tuned in to Syria in 2005.”
As a resident of Washington D.C., Chapple-Sokol has witnessed the transformative power of food in the District through a large influx of Ethiopian immigrants. “Food became a new community building tool, as restaurants became a place for the community to come together. Now a lot of D.C. residents know Ethiopian food and know the culture because of these unofficial embassies[…] these populations definitely do solidify their own cultural presence through their cuisine,” he explained.
Sanctuary Kitchen is not the only organization to empower and connect refugees through food. In Toronto, Len Senater was accustomed to hosting strangers in his kitchen when he became aware of the large Syrian refugee population temporarily housed in hotels nearby. As the founder of the shared industrial kitchen space, The Depanneur, Senater had spent seven years building “a place that’s no stranger to, and optimized for inviting strangers for cooking,” Senater describes.
Inspired by a conversation with two refugees, Senater invited several Syrian families to cook in his kitchen, as their temporary living accommodations had no equipment to prepare their own food. Senater, in an interview with The Politic, said that it was originally nothing more than an “invitation to make a meal together, and bring some leftovers home to family[…] from that small gesture of hospitality emerged this Newcomer Kitchen program.”
To fund the expanding program, Newcomer Kitchen began selling refugee-prepared food to Toronto residents, starting with Depanneur regulars. Newcomer Kitchen now works with a rotating collection of sixty families. Six to eight refugee cooks prepare fifty meals every Thursday, which are sold and delivered to local consumers via online orders. Senater attributes the steady demand for refugee-prepared meals to the interest of Toronto residents.
“Buying a meal and knowing that the money goes to a newcomer woman is a very easy, low-barrier way to feel that you’re participating in a small, meaningful way,” he said.
The success of Newcomer Kitchen has extended beyond the weekly meals. Newcomer Kitchen prepared food for the Illuminato festival in Toronto, and catered the Terroir symposium, a prestigious gastronomy conference. “To go in one year from having no kitchens at all to serving the best chefs in Canada. It’s an incredible milestone [for them],” Senater said.
Such accomplishments have not gone unnoticed; Newcomer Kitchen has received much attention from the media and one visit from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. This attention is not just a boon to the program, but to the individuals involved. “It’s a profound experience for those who have been ignored, unseen, unheard, living in a tenuous space of being unsure what their status is. To be seen, to be recognized, to be validated is really powerful,” Senater said.
The mission of Newcomer Kitchen extends beyond the individuals involved. The program seeks not only to connect Canadians with Syrians, but also promote intergenerational connections between older and younger refugees, and cross-cultural connections within the widely heterogenous Syrian community. The program includes Christians, Yazidis, Kurds, and many sects of Muslims. “These are people who would never be sitting around the same table in Syria,” Senater says.
Senater also believes Canadians have much to gain from Newcomer Kitchen programs. He describes traditional Syrian food as “a technology for sustainability. By drawing on the cultural wisdom developed and refined for thousands of years, Syrians have developed a sustainable way of eating for both the land and the consumer. He is optimistic that such knowledge can be transferred and adapted to new environments, even ones as geographically distant as Canada. According to Senater, Canadian citizens need to “reframe conversation away from all the things we need to teach them about being Canadian…[If we] begin to listen to what we can learn from this cultural exchange, we might get one of the most important lessons of our lifetime.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly described Sanctuary Kitchen as an independent nonprofit. Sanctuary Kitchen is one program operated by the nonprofit CitySeed, which manages a variety of services and initiatives.