“Sanctuary Kitchen” Fuels Refugee Dialogue

Lucy Gellman PhotoAfeefa dipped her hands into a bowl of crackly Egyptian rice, tomato paste and ground beef — and mixed together a dialogue as the women around her asked about the food she grew up eating. 

So began the third iteration of CitySeed‘s new Sanctuary Kitchen program, a culinary collaboration between the New Haven food nonprofit and recent refugees in New Haven.

After piloting a similar cooking demo last December at the New Haven Free Public Library, the program joined forces with CitySeed last month.

Friday night, it welcomed the warm weather and pollen-filled wind with refreshing mashi, or Syrian stuffed vegetables, at CitySeed’s Grand Street headquarters and kitchen. The program is currently funded by a $20,000 grant from the International Association of New Haven

In past Sanctuary Kitchen sessions, a seven-member team along with refugee-chefs have designed cooking classes about crackly, lemon-tinged fattoush salad and stuffed semolina cookies called ma’amoul.  Cooks Fatema, Afeefa and Ghadir (they did not wish to use last names) have led most of the sessions, walking participants through coring vegetables, mixing soaked rice, beef, and sumac, and finding ingredients like pomegranate molasses in West Haven’s supermarkets. On Friday, the three spread out at kitchen stations, setting up spices, fresh halal meat, and vegetables just before attendees arrived.  As new faces poured in, the chefs welcomed them to their tables and began the mashi.

Afeefa laid out soaked grape leaves like tiny, veined green blankets on two plates. Behind her, Fatema had attendees coring zucchini, leaving one end intact as a sort of stopper. Ghadir showed off tiny eggplants. Attendees delighted at their size before remembering the ratios of rice, ghee, dried mint, and tomato paste they needed to stuff them.

The attendees crowded around each table, watching the chefs methodically mix Egyptian rice, beef, ghee, and a jumble of spices before hopping in to straighten and stuff grape leaves on their own plates. Or they gathered around mixing bowls with cored, soaked zucchini in one hand and a pinch of glistening stuffing in the other. As they stuffed, conversation began to flow — first about refugee resettlement, and then about the dishes that were tying them to another country, half a world away. By the time the vegetables were ready for the stovetop, where they steamed for about an hour, questions rolled around the room, bouncing from chef to chef like the eggplants they had just prepared. 

“What would you serve this with?” asked Annie Stirna, a volunteer with the Killingworth Refugee Resettlement Coalition who had come as a first-time attendee with fellow volunteer Noreen Saunders.

As the three chefs offered up serving suggestions (yogurt, yogurt, and more yogurt), a few attendees nodded or made small notes where they sat. 

“What’s your favorite dish to make?” another asked. On answering (probably kibbeh and mashi), Fatema recalled how her mother-in-law had helped her with cooking for four months when she first got married, and then told her it was time to get serious in the kitchen. She had burned every dish she tried for months, including a leafy soup at which her mother-in-law had wrinkled her nose. The experience had gotten her to perfect several dishes, but not after struggling. 

The room, almost entirely married women, erupted into knowing laughter.

That kind of interaction, said Sanctuary Kitchen member Sumiya Kahn, is what the program is hoping to achieve. While using it as “a stepping stone” for refugees that teaches budgeting, shopping, recipe drafting, food service skills and English-language conversation, chefs also get to meet folks from other backgrounds.

“There’s a need for an increasing understanding of refugees, asylum seekers, and new immigrants,” said CitySeed Director Amelia Masterson, who spent eight years doing food policy and distribution work in Syria and Lebanon, and slipped into the role of Arabic translator when needed. “I think New Haven, generally, is pretty accepting — but there’s still a lot of misunderstanding. This is kind of a nonpolitical space to address a political issue.”

As attendees, cooks and Sanctuary Kitchen members cleaned their plates, Fatema chewed on the same sentiment.

“I’m really happy, really excited” to be doing the program, she said. “It’s really good to see people with another culture, and share with them a part of your culture, which is cooking. It’s really good to depend on yourself.”

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