Resettled Refugee Cooking Class

Here senior Chrissy Bartlett (left) and Cecelia Mercer (second from right) a Bear Fellow with the Kenan Institute are with Moram Taha (pink head scarf) and her daughter Ann who came to the US from Sudan

For almost the past five years, I have done home visits with the local resettled refuge community to sign up children for the tutoring and mentorship program, MASTERY, at Kenan. The first time I did a home visit with the former directors Grace Benson (Trinity ’14) and Jenny Sherman (T’14), they suggested that I should allocate three hours for the eight students we were visiting. At the time, I thought three hours seemed like an excessive amount of time for obtaining eight signatures. However, I quickly realized on the trip that home visits are not something that can be rushed. They typically entail meeting all the family members who are home (fathers, mothers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins), sharing a beverage (tea, coffee, soda), and a snack o. In the end the suggested three hours was not enough to cover all eight of the students that we had planned to visit.

The first few times I did home visits, I felt uncomfortable and unsure as to how to accept families’ hospitality. Was it appropriate to stay so long? Was I wasting their time? What if I wasn’t hungry? One of my good friends Tra Tran wrote a blog post in 2014 about her time in Jordan meeting with Iraqi refugee families during her Duke Immerse experience. Tra talks about the importance of hospitality in many cultures, not unlike Southern hospitality, to which I was also unaccustomed, moving to Durham from Ohio. Over the years, house visits have become an exciting trip I look forward to as opposed to the stressful encounters they used to be. Food is the quickest way to my heart, and being able to share food has created a fast way to become friends. The resettled refugees’ sense of pride in sharing culture, especially via food, is always so apparent.

Kenan’s programs have expanded and evolved from a summer camp for resettled refugee youth to MASTERY to an interrelated set of programs: MASTERY, SuWa, an ESL and GED help program for resettled refugee women, and SuWa skills, an empowerment program to help resettled refugee women via small business development. Cooking has been an idea that many women have expressed interest in pursing as a small business idea. However, due to high start-up costs of proper certification and lack of access to industrial kitchens, plans for a cooking-related social enterprise have been put on pause.

However, this past Saturday, three resettled refugee women and seventeen Duke undergraduates worked together to cook up traditional Sudanese and Iraqi food.

It was a great way for the resettled refugee women to showcase their culinary talents and for the students and women to interact with each other. The event was hosted at the Durham Spirits Co., in a beautiful historic Durham home, which had lots of counter space for participants to help with the prep work. The women brought their children as well and the afternoon was filled delicious aromas, giggles from the kids, and a shared meal with heaping piles of food leftover for attendees to bring home.

Duke students joined local refugees and their children at the Durham Spirits Company in east Durham to prepare a meal of traditional foods from Iraq and Sudan

A wonderful thing about food is that it cuts across cultures. Some of the women do not have the strongest grasp of English, but we were able to communicate via a mix of hand signals and broken phrases. We prepared a carrot salad, rice and potatoes, chicken and meat buns. The women were extremely excited to share their knowledge of food preparation, teaching new styles for prepping rice, and showing us the proper way to roll out the buns. Not many Duke students have the opportunity to do a home visit and experience the hospitality resettled refugees provide. Yet, for a Saturday afternoon a few Duke students were able to get a glimpse.