REFUGEE FOOD FESTIVAL. Pa Wah, a refugee from Myanmar, mixes
shrimp in a turmeric tempura batter at San Francisco’s Hog
Island Oyster Co. during the inaugural Refugee Food Festival.
Restaurants in San Francisco opened their kitchens for the first
time to refugees who showcased their culinary skills and native
cuisines while raising their profiles as aspiring chefs as part
of a program that increases awareness about the plight of
refugees worldwide. (AP Photo/Lorin Eleni Gill)
From The Asian Reporter, V28, #13 (July 2, 2018), page
U.S. restaurants host refugee chefs who offer
a taste of home
By Lorin Eleni Gill
The Associated Press
SAN FRANCISCO — At San Francisco’s Tawla restaurant, Muna
Anaee powdered her hands with flour and gently broke off a piece
of golden dough to prepare bread eaten in Iraq, the country she
fled with her family.
Anaee was preparing more than 100 loaves for diners that
night as part of a program that allows refugees aspiring to be
chefs and work in professional kitchens.
The Refugee Food Festival — a joint initiative of the United
Nations Refugee Agency and a French nonprofit, Food Sweet Food —
started in Paris in 2016 and came to the U.S. for the first time
this year, with restaurants in New York participating as well.
The establishments’ owners turn over their kitchens to refugee
chefs for an evening, allowing them to prepare sampling platters
of their country’s cuisine and share a taste of their home.
Restaurants in 12 cities outside the U.S. took part in the
program in June.
"It’s been a big dream to open a restaurant," said Anaee, 45,
who now has a green card.
Anaee was among five refugees chosen to showcase their food
in San Francisco — each at a different restaurant and on a
different night, from Tuesday through Saturday. Organizers say
the goal was to help the refugees succeed as chefs and raise
awareness about the plight of refugees worldwide.
It’s important to "really get to know these refugees and
their personal stories," said Sara Shah, who brought the event
to California after seeing it in Belgium.
Anaee and her husband and two children left Baghdad in 2013
over concerns about terrorism and violence. She worked as a
kindergarten teacher in Iraq, not a chef, but was urged to
pursue cooking as a career by peers in an English class she took
in California after they tasted some of her food.
Azhar Hashem, owner of Tawla, said hosting Anaee was part of
the restaurant’s mission to broaden diners’ understanding of the
Middle East — a region that inspires some of its dishes.
"Food is the best — and most humanizing — catalyst for having
harder conversations," she said.
The four other aspiring chefs serving food in San Francisco
were from Myanmar, Bhutan, Syria, and Senegal.
Karen Ferguson, executive director of the Northern California
offices of the International Rescue Committee, said San
Francisco was a good city for the food festival.
"We have so much diversity, and we see the evidence of that
in the culinary expertise in the area," she said.
The Bay Area has a high concentration of refugees from Burma,
Afghanistan, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Eritrea,
though exact numbers are unclear, according to the rescue
committee. Its Oakland office settled more than 400 refugees in
the Bay Area last year, but the number of refugees settling in
the region has fallen dramatically since the Trump
administration this year placed a cap on arrivals, Ferguson
Pa Wah, a 41-year-old refugee from Myanmar, presented dishes
at San Francisco’s Hog Island Oyster Co. She said she didn’t
consider a career in cooking until she moved to California in
2011 and got her green card.
Cooking was a means of survival at the Thailand refugee camp
where she lived after escaping civil conflict in Myanmar as a
child. Participating in the food festival showed her the
challenges of running a restaurant, but also helped her realize
she was capable of opening her own, she said.