Ingredients for a new life: how cooking helps refugees and migrants blend in

Conor Lennon/ UN News Trainee chef Roberta Mbiua (2nd right) receives his instructions from culinary director Alexander Harris at Emma’s Torch Restaurant, Brooklyn.

This article is brought to you in association with the United Nations.


On a Friday afternoon, in a small restaurant kitchen in the New York borough of Brooklyn, head chef Alexander Harris is giving instructions to his attentive team, preparing them for the busy evening ahead. So far, the tables are empty, but the small, popular space, with just a handful of tables – and some stools around the bar – will soon be bustling with the evening crowd.

There is nothing unusual about this scene, except that this restaurant, a non-profit enterprise named Emma’s Torch, has a specific mission: to teach refugees, migrants and survivors of human trafficking, new culinary skills, so they can build a better life in the US.

The name of the restaurant tells the story of its mission: it is a reference to the torch held aloft by the Statue of Liberty, and Emma Lazarus, whose 1883 poem, “The New Colossus”, includes the famous lines “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”, was written at a time when new arrivals to the country largely came by boat, to be processed on nearby Ellis Island.

“In Honduras, life was dangerous. You had to be careful of the gangs, and everyone around you”, Jose Lopez, one of the students working in the kitchen at Emma’s Torch told UN News. Unlike some of his colleagues, he already has some experience, having begun working as a cook back home, at the age of 12. Thanks to his apprenticeship, he had a job lined up as a line cook at a catering company, once he graduates from Emma’s Torch. But like many other students, he eventually wants to open his own restaurant, making Honduran specialties such as baleadas, and coconut soup.

Another member of the kitchen staff is Roberto Mbiua, an Angolan who has been in the US since 2017. Mr. Mbiua was forced to flee his home when his life was threatened, after a family member became, in his words, “involved in politics”. Roberto says that, unless the political situation changes in Angola, he will never be able to return to his country of origin. Unlike Mr. Lopez, he had no experience in the kitchen before coming to the restaurant but now, he says, “as long as I’m strong and able to do so, I will have a career as a cook”.

Mr. Harris, who is Emma’s Torch culinary director as well as head chef, has successfully shepherded many students, of all ages and come from different cultural backgrounds and educational levels, through the restaurant’s training programme. “it is my responsibility to find work for as many of them as possible, so I put the emphasis on teaching them the basics, such as the French terms and techniques, things that any professional kitchen would expect from an employee”.

Nevertheless, Mr. Harris enlivens his menu by taking into account the diversity of his staff, taking the classics and infusing them with a wide variety of influences. He calls it “New American” food, cooked by people who are, themselves, new Americans. On the evening UN News visited, they were serving up dishes such as black-eyed pea hummus with tahini, and vegetable tagine, alongside barbecue wings, and crusted fish and grits.

New York’s vibrant food scene, with delicacies from all over the world freely available, owes a lot to its immigrant population. A recent blog post from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) features Omer Eltigani, a migrant and food writer, who explains: “people have migrated all over the world to be here right now, and have created this incredible city, with incredible diversity. New York is a testament to the positive story of migration, and of its goals and potential.”

Omer, whose family are Sudanese, hosts food events in New York and other major cities, where he tells the story of Sudan through food, and uses food as a vehicle for education about the country’s history and culture. Sudanese food, he says, is a story of inbound and outward migration, of people coming into Sudan and leaving their mark, and others taking their culture and food with them when they leave: a “reciprocal arrangement that’s repeated countless times”.

The IOM story shows that many of the local ingredients used by New York’s best chefs are the product of immigration. Norwich Meadows Farm, for example, which supplies world-famous New York restaurants, employs Egyptian farmers to use the country’s techniques and technology to grow exotic vegetables – from sweet Kyoto red carrots, to Jimmy Nardello peppers and husk cherries – that end up as, literally, the flavour of the month, causing lines of hungry diners to form outside establishments across the city.

Food has the power to build cultural connections, and this has been recognized by the Refugee Food Festival, a project supported by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), which began in Paris in 2016, and has expanded to 14 cities, including New York.

As the so-called “refugee crisis” dominated headlines in Europe –  with large numbers of people heading to the European Union via the Mediterranean Sea, and through southeastern Europe – the founders of the festival decided to use the values of cooking to counter the often negative discourse surrounding refugees and migrants, and change the perceptions of those who leave their homes to start a new life elsewhere.

Restaurants in participating cities open their kitchens to refugee chefs and adapt their menu accordingly during the festival. The 2019 edition saw some famous New York restaurants inviting diners to discover Sri Lankan, Syrian, Iranian and Afghan cuisine.

A UNHCR-funded survey into the impact of the festival has found that some 70 per cent of participants in the festival believe that the festival has led to them thinking more positively about the welcoming of refugees, and more than 90 per cent left with plans to take a more active role in supporting them. As for the refugee chefs, around two- thirds of those who took part in the festival gained access to at least one professional opportunity, such as training, work in a professional kitchen, or opening their own restaurant.

Back at Emma’s Torch, Alexander Harris has seen first-hand how transformative the experience of taking their first steps on a culinary career has been for many of his students: “one of the more amazing parts of being in this programme is the journey, from day one to the last day, that each student goes through, and to see their cultural and technical awakenings, as well as their personal growth and development. They start off as being someone who doesn’t believe they could do this, to someone who is smiling, and confident, and ready take on the world”.

The restaurant’s Executive Director, Kerry Brodie, adds that the experience is not only beneficial to the students, but also for the people who come to eat at the restaurant, and for all Americans:

“We engage in this work not simply because our students are people less advantaged than ourselves; we do this because, as Americans, we believe that when we are at our best, this is how we behave, simply because it’s the right thing to do.”

“There is no ‘us’ and ‘them’, but if there was, I would argue that ‘they’ make ‘us’ stronger and better. What our students bring to the table has value, and we are fortunate to be able to work with them to ensure that they are welcomed by their new community.”

the sting Milestone

Featured Stings

Can we feed everyone without unleashing disaster? Read on

These campaigners want to give a quarter of the UK back to nature

How to build a more resilient and inclusive global system

Stopping antimicrobial resistance would cost just USD 2 per person a year

Road to Brexit: the UK seeks early agreement on Data Privacy with the EU

UN and Red Cross chiefs appeal for end to use of explosive weapons in cities

‘The welfare of the Libyan people’ the UN’s sole agenda for the country, says Guterres in Tripoli

ECB indicates south Europeans can endure more austerity

Council strongly criticised over failing to act to protect EU values in Hungary

Why home is the least safe place to be a woman

COVID-19 not yet a pandemic, says UN health agency chief

Spanish vote – bad luck for Greece: Does Iphigenia need to be sacrificed for favourable winds to blow in Eurozone?

The European Sting’s 2018 in most critical review

SDG progress ‘in danger’ of going backwards without change in direction, new UN report reveals

An enlightened response to COVID-19 can avert the climate emergency

Reducing deforestation means getting serious about environmental crime

Hiring more female leaders is good for profits. Here’s the evidence

IMF: European banks do not perform their duty to real economy

#UNGA NEWS ROUNDUP: Funding plea for UNRWA, Burkina Faso and CAR updates, Guterres praises climate change ‘pioneer’ Chirac

Towards a zero tobacco public space in Cameroon

The water where baby fish are outnumbered 7 to 1 by plastic

Modern farming is harming the planet. Tech-driven permaculture could heal it

Could the pandemic usher in a golden age of cycling?

Electronic Cigarettes: Are they really as safe as we think?

Thursday’s Daily Brief: Women in peacekeeping, the arrest of Sudan’s leader, updates on Libya, Nigeria and Syria

Resettlement: EU Member States’ pledges exceed 30,000 places for 2020

COVID-19: Commission provides guidance on EU passenger rights

‘Internal security’ or how to compromise citizens’ rights and also make huge profits

Legendary Harlem Globetrotters slam-dunk at the UN, with message that brings families, nations together

China and China-EU Relations in the New Era

Colombia is a Latin American success story, but must pursue new reforms to achieve stronger and more inclusive growth

What next for Europe? Three (completely) different Davos views

Agreement reached on new EU measures to prevent electricity blackouts

A ‘charismatic leader’ dedicated to making the world a better place for all: officials bid farewell to former UN chief Kofi Annan

How tiny countries top social and economic league tables (and win at football, too)

Why Indian students are going abroad to become Doctors?

Venezuelans brave torrential border river, face exploitation, abuse – UN urges greater protection

3 ways blockchain can revolutionize global supply chains

China is winning the electric vehicle race

My experience living with depression and schizophrenia in Thailand

5 principles for effective cybersecurity leadership in a post-COVID world

Drugs cost too much. There is a better way to fund medical innovation

Factories are no longer the sure route to prosperity. Here’s why

A 3-step plan for carbon-neutral cars

UN welcomes Angola’s repeal of anti-gay law, and ban on discrimination based on sexual orientation

FROM THE FIELD: India’s plastic waste revolution

Putting a price on carbon will help New York state achieve a clean energy future

‘Act fast and do whatever it takes’ to fight the COVID-19 crisis, say leading economists

A Sting Exclusive: “Infrastructure can lay the groundwork for the Sustainable Development Goals” by Mr Fulai Sheng, UN Environment Senior Economist

Europe might not avoid new partitioning on Ukrainian crisis

Ecofin: ‘The Friday battle’ for the banking union

Boris Johnson’s no-deal Brexit to differ when issued from 10 Downing St.

Fair and Simple Taxation: Commission proposes new package of measures to contribute to Europe’s recovery and growth

How to stop data leaks

President David Sassoli to visit Skopje: “Remain on the European track”

UN General Assembly celebrates 20 years of promoting a culture of peace

E-Governance: A powerful tool to combat, mitigate and sustainably manage disaster risks

Environment Committee MEPs vote to upgrade EU civil protection capacity

This year’s Earth Hour is going digital due to the COVID-19 pandemic

Banks promise easing of credit conditions in support of the real economy

UN and African Union in ‘common battle’ for development and climate change financing

How teaching ‘future resilient’ skills can help workers adapt to automation

IMAGINATION, FACTS AND OPPORTUNITIES – THE UNLIMITED POWER OF CHINA

Five years on from ISIL ‘caliphate’ proclamation in Iraq, Security Council makes first-ever visit

More Stings?

Advertising

Speak your Mind Here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s