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Refugee Kitchens Around the World: New York, Hong Kong, Utrecht

Stories inspired by Tanabel, African Food, and Syr

Photos by Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, TripAdvisor, Tanabel and Syr

On today’s “food for thought” menu: food as a panacea to political fracturing. The modern political climate has grown increasingly hostile toward the arrival of refugees; through executive policies that filter the admittance of refugees on religious or cultural grounds in the United States, as well as through the establishment of stricter numerical quotas, refugees are struggling more than ever to find safety, security and dignity for themselves and their loved-ones. Even those who have successfully arrived to their host-country have experienced a disproportionate, and growing, number of hate crimes, as the political rhetoric of various governments continues to fuel the anger and, above all, lack of understanding between host-country citizen and refugee. However, several organisations are aiming to bridge that lack of understanding through the medium of food; food has served as an important portal for many host-citizens to understand refugees beyond their status. Food is a portal that can reveal more about cultural practices and individual personalities that allow citizens of the host country to reflect, and find that they have more in common with their refugee counterparts than they may have initially surmised. This piece will outline some of the many organisations and restaurants that show their communities the value of refugees through the medium of food.

Oh Tanabel, Oh Tanabel, how lovely are your dishes!

Our first story takes us to the cultural melting-pot of the United States: New York City. Hannah Goldberg, a native New York resident, is an experienced chef who has had the opportunity to work in some of New York’s toughest kitchens; however, after many years of success as an independent chef, Hannah wanted to find a way to share her skills with those seeking to find a place in their new communities. As a result, Hannah decided to open Tanabel, a refugee-employed organisation that hosts weekly dinners, all of which are prepared, organised and served by refugees. These $100/head dinners showcase food that New Yorkers may struggle to find elsewhere, such as: Noor’s, "unripe green plums with salt as crudités, ruby-coloured beet salad with sun-dried black lime, silky sheep’s milk yogurt with bulgur and crushed walnuts, and fresh green fava beans with wild river mint." Hannah claims that not only does her company allow refugees, such as Noor, find financial stability, but also a sense of belonging and place within their new community. Given the current political climate and stringent immigration policies from the executive administration, Hannah seeks to establish a resistance to hateful rhetoric by showcasing what refugees are capable of doing; in short, Hannah and her patrons are, “giving a finger to the administration by lifting their forks.” Hannah makes the point that in order for the programme to be successful, the food must also be successful so as to 1.) guarantee that more people will partake in the dinner in the future, and 2.) communicate the message that refugees are just as capable of producing high-quality work, and contribute positively to society, generally, and their host communities, more specifically.

African Food in Hong Kong’s Hidden Chungking Mansions

Hong Kong, another bustling metropolis with a long history of cultural diversity, is another temporary home for many of the world’s refugees. The government of Hong Kong, however, has been cracking down on the arrival and settlement of refugees on its shores through two sweeping immigration operations, known as Silvershield and Powerbow. Through these operations, the Hong Kong Police Force has conducted a large number of raids in Hong Kong businesses, arresting three Vietnamese refugees who were found to be working in restaurants and cleaning companies. As refugees, they did not have a right to work in Hong Kong, and receive a modest monthly subsidy of 375 $HK; the three refugees were charged in the Hong Kong municipal court, and sentenced to 15-16 months of imprisonment for their violation. Since these incidents, refugees have been increasingly cautious about whom they speak with, and how they find opportunities for work; this is no less true in the case of African refugees staying at Chungking Mansions, a commercial complex containing a wide variety of retail stores and restaurants, which offers inexpensive accomodation for refugees looking for asylum. The complex is also home to the few African restaurants in Hong Kong. One of these establishments, aptly named "African Food", serves as a place of community and familiarity for Hong Kong’s many refugees. In the documentary series: Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, Bourdain asks the restaurant owners, Joe and Winnie, how they manage to cater to African refugees who have little money to spend, to which the owners reply that their mission is to offer a place for refugees to cook their food, “enjoy and meet new friends, and they can enjoy themselves.” Winnie, Joe’s wife and co-owner of the restaurant, remarks that moving to a new country is not easy, and that the aim is to create, “a place for them to feel like they are at home.” Indeed, while those that frequent African Food restaurant and Hong Kong do not benefit from the same financial reward of working in kitchens as those who work in Hannah’s Tanabel, they do benefit from finding a sense of home and belonging in an otherwise hostile environment. Food serves as the focal point of these conversations; it is the shrine to a home culture for many refugees, and a portal into refugee lives for citizens of the host country.

Syr-iously Delicious

Our last destination brings us to Utrecht (Netherlands), in which Syr is serving traditional Syrian meals, with a Dutch twist.  In contrast to the political climates of Hong Kong and the United States, the Netherlands (and European Union) offers a more accessible refugee asylum claim, though by no means is the refugee experience made any easier. The restaurant opened with the mission of creating a welcoming place for refugees to showcase their culinary and restaurant-management skills in their new home, but it’s current aim is to bridge the cultural divide between Syrian and Dutch citizens. The European twist is an intentional restaurant design to help both Syrian refugees understand their adoptive environment, learn the local language and develop professional skills that will carry on with them in their journey, as well as Dutch patrons who may encounter refugees in the city, but not have the opportunity, or a medium, to interact with them and their stories. The initial opportunity to gain professional and cultural awareness skills is a vital, and often the most difficult, step for refugees looking for work. The restaurant offers a wide range of paid positions, from dishwasher cleaners to head chefs, which provide important educational opportunities for refugee workers to apply in their future professional careers.  Restaurant work is also multifaceted, and allows for refugee workers to not only gain a greater grasp of the Dutch language, but also interview skills, and work culture awareness. According to its website, the restaurant invites Utrecht residents to experience “Syrian culture and be introduced to its hospitality.” In this sense, food serves a mechanism that facilitates dialogue between cultures, as well as a tool for refugees to learn other professional skills and cultural practices that will follow them in their future professional lives in the Netherlands. 

Creating Visibility, Place-Making and Unity through Food

When we say that food is a panacea to political fracturing, we must preface that it may not immediately remedy the institutional instruments that render life for refugees so arduous. However, food can act as a panacea to the feelings of fear that both refugees and wary citizens of host-communities feel upon the former’s arrival. The power of familiar smells, language and dining customs has a two-fold impact on the host community: it allows refugees to create a sense of familiarity  for themselves in their host communities, and allows the citizens of host-communities to (1) see refugees beyond their political status, and (2) realise that refugees have more in common with them than they may have initially anticipated. Food can also be discussed in the context of entrepreneurship, in that it can help refugees re-establish a degree of independence and ownership over their craft. This aspect of food is critical to placemaking and creating visibility for the immigrant population, and works to expand the way in which local people see refugees through their culture, cuisine, work ethic and desire to share what makes them unique. We’ve seen in the stories coming out of New York, Hong Kong and Utrecht that, despite stringent political limitations imposed on refugees and their individual rights, food can still serve as a beacon of hope for those struggling to rebuild their lives. While the ability to make a living off of restaurant and kitchen work may be more or less limited by the political restraints of a given country, the representation of food for refugees serves an important comforting role in an otherwise desperate moment in their lives, and allows host-country citizens to gain a more multifaceted appreciation of the struggle they face, and of the value of creating more cosmopolitan and compassionate societies.

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Maha- chef at Tanabel, picking eggplants for her famous maqlouba.

Photo credit: Instagram (@tanabletable)

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Tanabel's "Afghan Street Food Party"

Photo credit: Instagram (@tanabletable)

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Joe and Winnie- immigrant to Hong Kong and owners of "African Food Restaurant" in Chungking Mansion, HK.

Source: Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown;


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Front of "African Food" Restaurant

Source: Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown

Link: Netflix

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Chef at Syr preparing a dessert for the night's customers

Photo credit: Instagram

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Chef at Syr preparing a dessert for the night's customers.

Photo credit: Tripadvisor

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