Refugee Food Cultures Enrich Us Food Systems

Food Systems
Feb 13th, 2023 | By Chelsea Graham

There are 27 million refugees worldwide — most hosted in low- and middle-income countries. Last year the US welcomed about 10,000 refugees, bringing their unique food cultures along with them.

Resettled refugees find opportunities with food

By the time refugees arrive in the US, they have already faced conflict, loss, and persecution, as well as a bureaucratic system in which they have little ability to determine where they will end up. Refugee resettlement agencies help refugees find work, housing, and community, and link them up with other programs that help them gain new skills and launch businesses. Because refugees bring their rich food cultures with them, many programs focus on helping them gain formal skills and launch businesses in the culinary field.

Building skills and connections in Brooklyn

Naseema from Afghanistan, graduated from the apprenticeship program run by New American restaurant Emma’s Torch in 2017. After graduating, Naseema was able to find her first restaurant job in New York. Through the apprenticeship program, Emma’s Torch serves up food prepared by refugees who are paid a wage while receiving up to “400 hours of culinary training & professional development.” Emma’s Torch helps their graduates, like Naseema, go on to find employment in New York City’s food and beverage industry.

Incubating businesses in Denver

Comal heritage food incubator is a restaurant that helps refugees and immigrants start businesses using an “earn as you learn” model like that of Emma’s Torch. The training program lasts 18-24 months, and focuses on helping participants test out their heritage recipes and learn to manage a restaurant with the hopes of launching a business of their own. So far, Comal has provided work and skills to 24 participants and helped launch 4 businesses. Erika Rojas founded a Mexican food truck called Prieto’s Catering after participating in the incubator. Zaki Mediterranean was launched by an Iraqi-Syrian mother-daughter team, who serve regionally influenced treats like pita, baba ghanouj, and baklava.

Home-cooked takeaway in Missoula

In Missoula, Montana, a rotating cast of refugee and migrant chefs serve take away meals to the community out of a church basement. Going by the name United We Eat at Home, the program was launched by a refugee resettlement agency, and has been so popular that meals are sold out in minutes, with customers lining up in freezing temperatures. Chefs come from Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritrea, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Syria.

A cooperative business model in Baltimore

Mera kitchen collective is a community-based food business that uses a worker cooperative model “where the members have a share in the ownership and profits of the business”. The collective began by hosting pop-up dinners in members’ homes, and in October 2021 opened the doors of their first restaurant. They say that food “is a vehicle to share our cultures; the aroma of cardamom in a rice dish, the tangy spices of salsa verde, fruity, tropical baked goods, and the refreshing gingery mint juices of Burkina Faso.”

Bringing West African food to Detroit

Nadia Nijimbere was pregnant with twins when she traveled from Burundi to Detroit, fleeing persecution in her home country as a humans’ rights activist. When her husband Hamissi Mamba finally managed to rejoin his family, they decided to launch a restaurant, bringing a taste of home to their new city. Baobab Fare serves East African street food and hires other asylum seekers working together with Freedom House.

Find out where refugees are feeding your city

This is just a sampling of refugee-run businesses in the United States. If you don’t see your city on the list we challenge you to find a restaurant run by refugees near you. Share your favorites with us on social media!

Tagged: Food, culinary, culture

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