Zainab Al-Qaderi had a satisfied smile on her face as she presented her guests with her sweet Iraqi specialty called kanafa. The guests dug in, with their forks gently cracking the crispy outer layer of shredded phyllo dough, to reveal creamy layers of baked goodness: a filling of sweet cheese and clotted cream, with a dainty pistachio garnish. She motioned her guests towards a small jar full of syrup and urged them to drizzle the sugar-water concoction over the dish to enhance the flavor.
Al-Qaderi was giving the press a sample of a mouthwatering dish that can be re-experienced at the World Refugee Day Festival on Saturday, June 23, at 2 p.m. at CitySeed & Trinity Episcopal Church on the New Haven Green. Co-sponsored by Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services (IRIS) and Sanctuary Kitchen in New Haven, the event aims to raise awareness to the refugee crisis through a festival of international cuisine and music. Al-Qaderi will be one of the five refugee chefs featured in a World Cuisine Tasting event to kick off the day.
Al-Qaderi arrived to America in November 2016 after being forced to free Iraq due to health and safety problems. As her family was targeted for violence and suffering from a chemical-induced virus that stripped her of her ability to walk, it found that food was one way to stay together.
Al-Qaderi teaches popular (often sold-out) classes through Sanctuary Kitchen, a program launched by the nonprofit CitySeed organization. (Read more about Sanctuary Kitchen here.) She hopes to start a catering business where her cooking can reach a larger audience.
The food tasting event will be followed by a free concert featuring South African artist Thabisa.
Saturday’s event will also feature speeches from four young refugee leaders, including 16-year-old Mariame Kazadi. Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kazadi came to America in November 2016 in response to threats and family persecution because of her father’s career as an election supervisor. In the midst of Kazadi and her family moving between refugee camps in Kenya to Nairobi before arriving to America, Kazadi’s brother and uncle were kidnapped. She has not heard from them since.
“[Coming to the US] has been the greatest thing that ever happened to me,” said Kazadi with a smile. “It’s all I wanted… for family to be together and live in a place where we can be safe.”
A rising junior at Hillhouse High School, Kazadi said American high school is “so different from what [she] expected.” Despite the cultural differences and initial difficulty to make friends, Kazadi response to her assimilation progress is: “I’m working on it.”
Kazadi commended IRIS’ “great support” through providing a fully-furnished home, access to education, helping her parents find a job, and providing English classes for her mother. “What we needed at the time, IRIS provided,” she said.
“In my religion, a home that welcomes visitors is a blessed home,” she said. “America is a blessed country.” She said that immigrants and refugees “all just want a safe place” and the “chance to build their American Dream.”
Kazadi didn’t let her life experiences and adversities define her. She is determined to go to law school and become an immigration attorney so that she can “help people have a new life” and demonstrate that “refugees can be accepted everywhere.”