When I moved from New Mexico to Colorado three and a half years ago, I didn’t fully realize how important food could be. Within a few weeks of my big move, I remember missing the flavors of red and green chile, a crop grown in my home state that is the cornerstone of New Mexican cuisine. For me, red and green chile is more of a comfort food than mashed potatoes and gravy or apple pie. To this day, when I’m homesick, or missing my family and friends, I inevitably crave chile. And at the beginning of September, I get a little sad because I’m missing the chile roasting. Instead of sitting in my backyard in Albuquerque with my dad peeling roasted chiles from 20lb burlap sacks, I’m in Colorado.
As sentimental as I have become about chile, it’s hard for me to imagine what it means to not just leave your home willingly, as I did, but to flee it, as many of our clients at the GRC have. When leaving their homes, refugees leave behind possessions, friends, and even family members. But most of all, they are leaving behind an entire culture, the familiarity of language, religion, geography, and even food. The good news, though, is that recipes are replaceable, especially when learned by the side of a loved one and the taste of familiar foods can instantly transport us home or really anywhere in the world.
This week, as part of our A Walk in Their Shoes event, the GRC clients, staff and volunteers worked together to make a sampling of the food that is important to the culture of our clients. Among the ten or twelve dishes available, my favorites were samboosas, doro wat and injera. Samboosas are a Somalian dish, a fried dough triangle filled with a spicy and flavorful mixture of vegetables and beef. Doro wat is an Ethiopian dish, a stew of chicken, hard-boiled eggs and a spicy base made from chili paste. Injera is bread-like dish from many African cultures. It is a spongy flat bread that has a taste similar to sourdough bread and goes well with most dishes, especially the doro wat.
For me, and hopefully for all those people who attended the event, tasting these foods gave me a sense of the flavors of Somalia, Ethiopia and other places I could never really imagine. It gave me a sense of the people I work with in the GRC office and help teach in ESL classes. But mostly tasting this delicious food reminded me of what new refugees are working for.
Refugees are more than victims of civil war and conflict, they are people with a history and a culture that they bring with them in relocation. In addition to the struggles of assimilating to a new culture, they must also maintain the one they left behind. While it is our responsibility to welcome refugees into our homeland and our culture, it’s also important to remember what they have to offer us.
Throughout our shared thread of global history, America has welcomed refugees, from famine, poverty, war and conflict who, not only found shelter in the promise of our nation, but also shaped many aspects of our American culture. Refugees are contributors to our melting-pot-tossed-salad-society in everything from religion to language and even food. So this new influx of refugees from Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, etc is not a burden on our culture, as some people seem to think, but a new and exciting chapter of our history, an arrival of ideas, religion, language, beliefs and delicious foods into the life of our ever-changing society.