Refugee Kitchens: Growing Faraway Seeds Into Local Plates
Refugee Chefs prepare incredible dishes of their native traditions.
Food is a universal language. Go to Italy, and you won’t have to speak a word of Italian to meet eyes with the chef and acknowledge a good bowl of pasta. Food is also a universal human need; for rich, poor, or in between, refugee kitchens feed without discrimination.
When refugees resettle in the United States, they bring with them a deep food heritage rich in culture and tradition, where their new community is better for their knowledge.
In 2022, the United States will welcome up to 125,000 refugees. From 2010 to 2020 most refugees were fleeing their countries due to political upheaval and came predominantly from Myanmar, Iraq, and Bhutan. In 2021, this changed almost completely with refugees hailing from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria, Afghanistan, and Ukraine.
These families are asylum seekers fleeing war and upheaval or those who have had their human rights violated. At the end of each day, we are all the same, driven to ensure the safety and happiness of our families through a prosperous livelihood.
While they often arrive with only the clothes on their back, refugees’ food knowledge travels within them. Given the opportunity to use this specialty knowledge can allow refugee families to build a life while enriching their local communities with authentic cuisine, traditions, and stories at the same time. Food creates a common language to make connections with a new community. It is the ultimate uniter, where breaking bread is a universal language.
Perhaps the biggest impact of supporting refugee chefs is letting them shed the term “refugee” as they transition to contributing community members. Refugee kitchens and work programs give every human a seat at the table where they can dream a livelihood into reality without judgment.
Below we highlight five refugee kitchens that are elevating refugee voices through food.
Five Refugee Kitchens Worth Supporting
United We Eat Refugee Kitchen
1. United We Eat
Where: Missoula, Montana
Offers: Takeaway Every Thursday, Catering, Classes, Supper Club
United We Eat celebrates its newest international neighbors with a rotating list of guest chefs from Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritrea, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Syria, all of who tell their stories through bespoke weekly menus.
The menu goes out via email on Thursday mornings and takeaway meals sell out in minutes. A sign above each chef encourages customers to greet them in their local language, a small but significant bridge-building sentiment.
United We Eat also hosts cooking classes, supper clubs, and cookie sales to supplement refugee incomes.
Sanctuary Kitchen’s Refugee Chefs prepare incredible dishes for supper clubs and catering.
2. Sanctuary Kitchen
Where: New Haven, Connecticut
Offers: Pre Orders, Pick, Delivery, Classes, Supper Club
Sanctuary Kitchen was formed in 2017 to celebrate acceptance and elevate the personal stories of refugees that have resettled in Connecticut. Their kitchen offers weekly menus, plant-based meal plans, and Syrian, Afghan, and Iraqi catering menus.
Sanctuary kitchen also hosts cooking classes and culinary events featuring Mexican, Dominican Republic, and Sudanese cuisine. In addition, support for the Sanctuary Kitchen helps to provide crucial training and support an income for displaced families who can go on to be part of building their communities through entrepreneurship.
Eat Offbeat combines the naturally emotional connection of food to home with a desire to bring authentic dishes from all over the world through refugee chefs. Eight chefs from Syria, Myanmar, Iraq, Afghanistan, Senegal, and Venezuela prepare bespoke menus shipped in meal boxes all over the greater New York area via a commercial kitchen in Queens.
The kitchen creates jobs for talented refugees, creates connections for customers between the story of the food and the international refugee chefs who prepare it and changes the narrative around refugee lives in the United States.
In addition, they ship specialty provisions all over the nation which include; Senegalese spiced nuts, Iraqi walnut tahini dates, Syrian sesame cookies, and Venezuelan jams.
The Ubuntu Kitchen is Part of Project Feast, Kent, Washington(Matt Mills McKnight/Cascade Public Media)
4. Project Feast
Where: Kent, Washington
Offers: Ubuntu Street Cafe, Delivery, Catering
Project Feast is more than a kitchen passing authentic culinary traditions from refugee chefs to customers. In addition, it is also a place that provides a future in the form of language courses and culinary apprenticeships. These skills create a pathway to food entrepreneurism for people displaced from their home countries.
The Cooking Ubuntu Cafe Project elevates the international voices of over ⅓ of the local community sharing common bonds that connect humanity. A visit to the cafe supports pathways for refugees to graduate from a program and go on to food careers or to build their own businesses.
Delicious By Shereen is a refugee kitchen that supports women refugees through their training and catering programs.
Where: Winston-Salem/Greenboro, North Carolina
Delicious, founded by Egyptian native Shereen Gomaa, is an inspiring non-profit built to help female refugees find their path. This North Carolina kitchen features a celebrated catering service. They specialize in authentic Egyptian and Middle Eastern cuisine prepared by refugee women combining skillets with skill-making opportunities
Additionally, team members at Delicious can make their own hours. This allows them the freedom to care for their other obligations. In addition, when they aren’t catering to their loyal community following, they pass on the help to other community groups by donating food.
SAPi Food Hustlers: Breaking Bread with Fourth Circle Doula’s Jessica Callahan
Each installment of SAPi’s Food Hustlers will highlight locally minded people who are doing their part in the food business ecosystem. Whether they are running a Refugee Kitchen or scaling a food truck, we want to know what drives them!
In the first edition of Food Hustlers, we’ll highlight a woman who is a community food activist by passion and a food doula by profession.
Jessica Callahan was born in the rural countryside of Southwest Washington without an authentic dish of any nationality to be found within many miles. In fact, her most exotic self-served after school meal was rehydrated Top Ramen with slices of cheddar cheese thrown on top for good umami measure.
Raised by a salt of the earth mother who surrounded their country house with a garden acre of produce, she knew fresh from the dirt ingredients when she saw them, but not necessarily how to wield them.
Eventually, a move from the outskirts of the culinary desert of rural Washington and into the notoriously food-centric community-driven city of Portland, Oregon, led her on a self-paved path of food therapy.
Encounters with naturopaths and urban foragers, and a heightened desire to feed her growing family better (in both the nourishment and health sense), led Callahan to become a food doula.
Realizing that food had always impacted her emotional well-being, she began to wield food as a powerful tool of healing and support. From making witchy tinctures out of her urban Portland garden to sending baked cannabis confections out her back door to fellow moms in need more than 15 years ago, she has evolved into a sought-after Private Chef and Food Doula with her company Fourth Circle Doula.
Callahan has a created her own bespoke food ecosystem by forming a nexus of local farmers and community gardens and teaming up with other local changemakers to bring food equality to her current small town rural community in Toledo, Washington. Tasked with a mission to spread loving kindness by the plate, she is the food changemaker every community deserves.
So how does a loose and wild backwoods urban forager turn into a refined food therapist? We meet her mid-strainer at her kitchen counter while extricating tiny tomato seeds from last year’s preserves to find out.
Callahan’s Seasonal Grilled Peaches
Thank you for making time for us during dinner prep! Can you tell SAPi about your food hustle with your company Fourth Circle Doula:
A food doula can do a lot of things, but what I do as a food doula is more along the lines of being a private chef but with a real nurturing and therapeutic component. I am essentially a private chef except with the primary goal of nourishing and caring for you beyond just preparing the food.
Sometimes I prepare food in my client’s kitchen and sometimes in my own kitchen. Most of my clients prefer me to come into their homes because it has that extra freshness, and they are possibly able to learn in the process.
What was your food hustle before food doula work?
I started out as a postpartum doula, working to care for families when a new baby (or babies!) arrived. This had a heavy food component where I was nurturing new moms and families through a big transition time, preparing nutritious meals, and taking the time burden off their shoulders so they could recover and enjoy their new family.
I also had a cottage business many years ago making “herbal baked goods” that I felt were a real symbol of nurture and care. Actually, I still use herbs, just different ones!
I would never have said I was a foodie growing up – I think I just knew what food did for my feelings! I wasn’t exposed to a lot of different foods growing up at all. Then I had a roommate in Portland who was a super foodie and introduced me to a whole new world. Then entering motherhood, I wanted to go beyond using food for just nutrients.
A few nauseous pregnancies led me to learn how to do a good job on the few foods I could get in. That really kicked off a mission of food empowerment.
A typical day of a Food Doula Photo Credit: Fourth Circle Doula
What kind of people are in need of a food therapist like yourself?
I’ve been so lucky to have consistently had clients seek me out through word of mouth. Most of the time its people who have autoimmune issues, allergies, Chron’s, or Celiac disease, where eating out or preparing their own food is really hard for them. They have to prepare every one of their meals, so I help them to follow their diet while giving them a break.
I have also had a lot of overworked parents who might have kids who are picky eaters who are over cooking one dish on repeat. I think what a food doula offers is support for food stress. For instance, reminders that mealtime isn’t just what they eat. It’s the sitting down, lighting a candle, saying what you’re grateful for, whatever it takes to create a nourishing experience, not just a meal.
I also feel like it’s part of the privilege of having the client base I have. My service makes a lot of difference in these people’s lives and sometimes the people who need it most can’t afford it. I try to think about other ways to give back to the community using my skills by dropping off food to people down with COVID, helping out at local farms, and volunteering with the local food exchange.
What does a typical day/week look like in the life of an acclaimed food doula?
Honestly, I don’t cook a lot during the day. I tend to cook later at night. Like all small businesses, I spend a lot of time at the beginning of the day doing admin tasks like menu planning, I try to stay fresh all the time. It’s a labor of love to chase ingredients from farms, co-op groups, and a community “grow to give” exchange. I also live on a cattle farm, so that’s easy to source from.
This summer, Callahan helped to form the grassroots Toledo Neighbors program which saw residents from all different walks of life teaming up to revitalize the local food bank and create a local food exchange.
You are recognized as one of your community’s food changemakers- where is the system thriving in your community, and where does it still need fertilizer?
I think it’s fortunate living in a rural community where everyone with a yard is growing something, even if it’s just some tomatoes in the front. Luckily in the Northwest, we don’t deal with drought and growing our own food can ease the burden on the larger food system.
People in this community really care about food access for everyone. It seems to be a great uniting force, and there seems to be no political divide. It really helps our humanity.
For example, the Toledo Neighbors community group grows food specifically to give to anybody. With that group, the emphasis is that you don’t have to be low-income to come to get food; it’s for everybody. It’s a nice way to exchange and stay local and take the stigma out of donated food. No, you don’t have to be low-income, communities share food.
What we need help with is finding an easy way to shift the other resources that make it difficult for people to utilize the free food resources. They have all these fresh fruits and veggies for dinner but don’t have the hours of cooking and cleaning up to invest. We need to make family work schedules more manageable so they aren’t pulling up to the fast food place out of survival.
It shouldn’t be a burden when you get beautiful farm-fresh produce. We try in our community groups to get already prepared food out to people to ease the burden. People can’t just eat out of cans forever.
What are your favorite food rituals for making your own meals, and do you have hard and fast kitchen rules for your family?
I think because I love to cook always that I probably have a rhythm that involves starting with a clean kitchen and putting on my podcasts (any NPR or Marc Maron).
We meet at the kitchen island, and my family eats while I’m still working. I’ll kind of eat and work on one side, and we’ll talk. I love that time.
You lead both your professional and personal life with an onus of “Loving Kindness,” do you think kindness can be edible?
I think there is alchemy in the food that drives feelings and love. I think it’s vulnerable to want to care for people like that, to put all that into the food you make for people truly out of love. It’s not vulnerable to just boil everything that is grown and put some salt on it and say: “here are your calories”.
I think cooking is the ultimate act of kindness. It doesn’t really take what I perceive to be too much work. It’s very natural, pure, full, and good. I feel like you can take whatever feelings you’re having, and you can go into the kitchen and come out with a love meal.
I really love making people feel cared for and nurtured. Words are harder for me. I’m a real serious introvert. Food is my love language.
What is the strangest/fun request that you have gotten as a food doula?
I did have one client who ate rice pilaf and zucchini noodle lasagna every single day for nine months.
What’s a piece of advice you would give a future food doula?
My piece of advice is that loving-kindness is not just for your clients but for yourself. You need to maintain your boundaries. If I knew what was ahead in my career, I would do it all over again.
Cheesy Grits with Slow Cooked Greens and smokes Chili Oil Photo Credit: Fourth Circle Doula
To finish our interview can we ask you some rapid fire foodie questions?