During a cooking demonstration at a New Haven library on a cold winter night last December, when Fatema headed to the oven to take out her finished dish, it’s understandable that she might have been a little nervous about how her food would be received.
She had been through a lot in her 24 years.
After a childhood filled with memories of time spent playing with her best friend next door, with neither one worried about who was a Christian and who was a Muslim, and family parties fueled by home-cooked food, dancing, and late night gossip sessions that lasted until the sun came up, she and her family were forced to flee their hometown. The family’s clothing factories and most of the rest of the formerly sophisticated, metropolitan city of Homs, Syria, was being ground into a haunted street-scape of ghostly white rubble punctuated by the skeletal remains of buildings, as an array of governmental forces and disparate armed militias viciously fought for territory.
After seeking refuge in Jordan for several years with her family, Fatema and her husband and son applied to live in the United States. It was a wrenching decision for Fatema, the youngest of nine, to leave the rest of her family, but she and her husband had their hearts set on safety and a better future in the United States for their son. They were set to fly to Indiana, but were turned away when then-governor Mike Pence, now the vice president of the United States, announced a ban on the resettlement of Muslim refugees in that state, even for those like Fatema and her husband who had already passed muster through a years-long vetting process.
The young family was rerouted at the last minute and welcomed by government officials and volunteers in Connecticut. They settled in a small apartment on the second floor of a building next to the highway in the Wooster Square section of New Haven. They started taking English language lessons and Fatema’s husband began to look for work, when one of Fatema’s new acquaintances in New Haven, Sumiya Khan, asked her if she would help out with a cooking demonstration at the local library sponsored by Students of Salaams, a student group at Yale that tutors refugee children. Would Fatema help teach people interested in learning more about Syrian cuisine, Khan wanted to know.
Fatema was relatively new to cooking. Her mother cooked for her when she lived at home, and then her mother-in-law also did so for a bit after Fatema got married, and so it had only been a few years since she was the master of her own kitchen. Still, she said she would, and here she was in front of about 40 people, pulling a huge, hot tray of one of her favorite dishes out of the oven. Would they like it? Fatema calls the dish ash al-bulbul, her variation on sfeeha, a Syrian meat pie.
As she started carrying the tray to the table, Fatema worried it might seem foreign to these 40 strangers.
As the aroma of the puff pastry, topped with ground beef fragrant with spices, pomegranate syrup, and tahini, began to filter through the room so many of the guests begged her for “just a bite,” that by the time Fatema got to the table, the tray was empty. The enthusiasm and smiles and laughter prompted by the shared food turned strangers into friends. Fatema smiles broadly at the memory and remembers thinking, maybe there was something to this cooking thing.
Khan, looking on, was thinking the same thing.
“Yes,” she says. “This was the beginning of Sanctuary Kitchen.”
Celebrating Traditions, Cultures, Stories
On Sunday, Sept. 10, from 3 to 5 p.m., Sanctuary Kitchen will hold its official grand opening at the Greenberg Conference Center, 391 Prospect Street, in New Haven. Sanctuary Kitchen is a program developed by CitySeed in partnership with a network of community volunteers that “promotes and celebrates the culinary traditions, cultures, and stories of refugees resettled in Connecticut, while providing them with economically viable culinary opportunities that have personal income potential.”
Sanctuary Kitchen events and initiatives include cooking classes, demonstrations, and supper clubs. Catering can be arranged. Sanctuary Kitchen is also starting up a kitchen-to-farmers’ market incubator to further support refugee food entrepreneurs. Over the course of its soft opening earlier this year, the team of community volunteers led by Kahn and others have worked with refugees and immigrants from Syrian, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Jaghori District of Afghanistan, Sudan, Iraq, Eritrea, Colombia, Cuba, Iran, and Rwanda. The events have been wildly popular, many of them selling out within days of being offered. Some have been sold out in as little as 45 minutes after being posted.
Following the enormous popularity of the offerings, Kahn and the others involved with Sanctuary Kitchen, including Fatema, would love nothing more than for its work to grow. Khan, a registered dietitian with a background in cooking education sees an enormous upside to training refugees and immigrants in food-related professions, both for their own sake, and for the sake of the community.
“It just makes so much sense to do this,” she says. “We have a huge population of refugees, and Cityseed was already involved with cooking education, so it felt like common ground.”
While she had contemplated the notion of creating such an organization for a while, she says the election in November provided her efforts with the fuel these ideas needed to grow.
“I never would have thought we could have done this much in this period of time. It’s grown so much bigger and better than I thought,” she says. “With the election in November, and all the fear and Islamaphobia, and fear of immigration, and refugees coming in being spouted by some politicians, it just seemed to spur something in the people of Connecticut. The folks here just wanted to actively combat those ideas.”
A Real Hunger
Khan says, through the work of growing Sanctuary Kitchen, she’s met so many people wanting to break barriers down, and with a real hunger to meet immigrants and refugees. As the specific horrors of the war in Syria, including chemical weapon attacks that claimed adults and babies alike, and efforts to starve the population out of parts of the city, became known, people along the shoreline of Connecticut wanted to help.
“Some people wanted to donate money, and they have been very generous, and they wanted to do more. They wanted to see how they were making a difference, to see something visual,” she says. “And so those are the people who are coming to the cooking classes, those people who want to see the impact their generosity if having on individuals. They are helping refugees who are struggling and trying to settle in here. It’s a concrete way for people to get involved in the refugee crisis.”
In addition to working with Cityseed, Sanctuary Kitchen also works closely with Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services (IRIS) in New Haven. The International Association of New Haven has provided support as well, helping to cover some of the costs of starting up cooking classes, and the business incubator program.
Khan says the September open house is an effort to thank everyone who has done so much to help so far, and to establish new relationships and partners that will help the organization grow.
“We are interested in anyone who wants to help partner or collaborate,” she says.
The past few months have been an adventure, with some ups and downs. Khan remembers that during one event, the refugee cooks didn’t realize that people wanted to meet them and get to know them.
“We had seven different refugee cooks, and a couple of them made the food and didn’t come. So we had to go and call them, and tell them that we wanted their company as well. That idea of people wanting to meet them and learn from them and building community in this way is a very western concept. Because back home they had their communities, their families, and their extended families, all speaking the same language. When you have people from all over, you have to approach it in a different way. We had to tell them that people want to meet you, and learn about your culture and welcome you. Until they experienced that, they did not quite know what we meant.”
Cooking from the Heart
When I go to interview Fatema for this story, I call to let her know I’m there, and a few minutes later, Ayham, her seven-year-old son opens the outside door and greets me with a big smile. He leads me upstairs, opens the door to the apartment, and then steps back two paces to let me enter first. I take off my shoes, leaving them with the others outside the door, and enter Fatema’s tiny, pristine home. As the cars and trucks speed by the highway outside the window, she brings me something to drink and eat, and we settle in her comfortable front parlor to talk, as her son goes into the kitchen to play.
I met Fatema (we’ve withheld her last name due to her concern for her family’s safety) at a cookie-making class she taught with Ghadir and Afeefa on Mother’s Day entitled “Make Ma’amoul Not War.” At the cooking class, Fatema had been in traditional formal Arabic dress that revealed her ebullient personality and her face with its cheerful smile. After learning that she had started up a catering business, I hired her to bake me some cookies for an event held by Together We Rise CT. When I met her the second time at her home, in less formal clothing, I was shocked by how young she was, as young as my daughter.
I learned that time, that in addition to being a mother, and helping to teach cooking classes, and running a catering business, she also was going to classes, learning English, and that she eventually wanted to go to school to get into a health-related profession.
When we talked for this story, Fatema, now 25, tells me she’s still interested in getting into a health-related profession. She is continuing with her catering, but says she doesn’t think she’ll study cooking. She she loves doing the catering and helping people who don’t have the time to cook, and wants to continue doing it from the heart.
As we talk, Ayham sits down next to her on the couch, examines his toy Nerf gun, and starts to play with it.
We talk a bit about the war that has scattered her family over several continents.
“My city before the war it was perfect, people were friendly, helpful, accepting. Now it breaks my heart to understand what is happening there,” she says. “People should not use religion and culture to separate people.”
She says she sees her food as an offering from her culture and background, one she hopes will help create affection and respect. She sees respect for culture, religion, background, and differences as a key to bringing peace to a world beset by crises and war, including the war that destroyed her home and broke her heart. She enjoys offering food to help people understand and cultivate respect for where she comes from.
Fatema tells me about a recent gathering her mother held in Jordan, to welcome a family member coming from Saudi Arabia to rejoin the family. She says her mother was so happy, that the “food came from the heart.” Everyone said it was the best they ever had. This is what Fatema aspires to do.
“Working with the food is something I enjoy,” she says. “When you study, it might change the way you cook. For me, it is just about the flavor, and how tasty it is. Cooking is fun, and I cook from the heart. If you cook for someone you love, your food will be amazing.”
As we finish up, I ask Ayham if he is excited about the start of school, 1st grade for him in a few days. He smiles and says yes, and says he just got his “packback.” I ask if I can see it. He runs into the other room, and returns with his backpack, decorated with minions from the movie Despicable Me. He proudly zips open his new backpack, with the tags still on, and carefully pulls out his pencil case, rattling with new pens, pencils, and crayons, then his new notebook, and his other treasures, looking as pleased and awestruck as a kid on Christmas morning.
I ask them how to say minions in Arabic, and Fatema laughs and says, “minions!”
The story was updated on Friday, Sept. 1 to correct the spelling on Sumiya Khan's last name.