Standing before a hot plate and sacks of sugar, semolina flour, and ground nuts, A (who asked not to be identified by her name) prepared to perform culinary magic. Her hands flew through the still air, 30 pairs of eyes following her every move. The swift flick of her wrist. A spoon stirring slowly through simple syrup.
As she spoke, a fast thread of Arabic running from her to the audience, translator Malak Nasr stepped forward to distill her sentences. Two cups of sugar. Four cups of coarse semolina.
This dessert, a syrup-drenched sweet cake called basbousa, was one of her favorite recipes.
A is one of the estimated 420 refugees who came to New Haven and its surrounding towns in 2016. Nasr is a Yale student whose home, Cairo, has felt increasingly far away as she’s embarked on her studies. A year ago, the two women likely wouldn’t have known each other. Now, thanks to a student group that is interested in engaging the New Haven community — and having the New Haven community engage it back — the two found themselves together in the basement presentation room of the New Haven Free Public Library on a recent Saturday, teaching a small but eager crowd of New Haveners how to cook Syrian cuisine, from fattoush salad and delicate beef sfeeha to basbousa.
Founded in fall 2015, the group is called Students of Salaam (SoS), a handful of Yale undergrads who, taking a note from statewide organizations like Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS), fan out across the city to help some of Connecticut’s newest citizens settle in. A first part of that means sending student ambassadors fluent in Farsi and Arabic into the New Haven public schools, where they volunteer with students struggling to get a liberal arts curriculum as they adjust to life in Connecticut.
A second, which co-founders Aaminah B’hat and Stella Shannon see as integral to the group’s mission, is SoS’s monthly roster of community events, an ongoing collaboration with the New Haven Free Public Library that has included movie screenings, free lectures, and now cooking classes at the downtown Ives branch on Elm Street. Working closely with University of Connecticut dietician Sumiya Khan and MomsRising Campaign Director Khadija Gurnah for December’s session, B’hat and Shannon said that they hoped the cooking course would be the first of many to come.
“We really thought it was important to work with the New Haven community to bridge the gap and to make sure that people are conversing — whether it be kids just playing a soccer match or coming together to cook some of these dishes,” said B’hat, who grew up the daughter of Kashmiri immigrants in Lawrenceville, N.J., on a recent episode of WNHH’s “Kitchen Sync.”
“Far too often when we look at the Middle East, particularly when we look at Syria, we see it as simply a state of crisis or a location of victimhood,” added Shannon. “When we position ourselves in that way, we forget that those individuals have much agency. They’re intelligent. They’re rational actors. They have a lot to add to our communities. It’s not a burden on New Haven to welcome these people, but it’s a really great gift.”
That gift multiplied itself several times (and sheet pans) over in the library’s downstairs multipurpose room. Smells of simmering lentil soup and crisping, fragrantly spiced beef flowed in from the small kitchen as the three women, whom SoS ambassadors met through tutoring several of their children and eating in their homes, talked New Haveners through the basics of Syrian meal prep.
As they did, a new sort of culinary-linguistic dance unfurled. Sprinkling pine nuts and cinnamon-and-pomegranate-scented beef onto pastry squares from Trader Joe’s became a balletic gesture of goodwill, each palmful of ingredients drawing new questions from the audience. When A demonstrated the desired thick consistency of yellow basbousa batter, the whole room leaned forward and took mental note. Smiles abounded.
Events like Saturday’s, said SoS ambassador Rashid Akbari, go a long way in fighting the kind of stereotypes that have led to hate crimes in Connecticut and across the country.
“One of the stereotypes [I’ve seen in New Haven] is that this community isn’t theirs,” he said, adding that he’d identified with his students as a first generation Afghani-American. “What we’re trying to do is make sure that they know that this is their community, they belong here, and we want them here, because they really bring a new view to the classroom, and that’s something that the teachers should try to embrace.”
“These students — a lot of them are very new,” he added. “It’s very important to make sure that they know that they belong here and this is their new home. That’s really the key.”
To listen to the full episode, click on or download the above audio, or check out the “Kitchen Sync” podcast.