As Nasrin stood over the "curried falafel" she was frying at Taim, an Israeli restaurant in downtown Manhattan, she was flooded with childhood memories of cooking as a child with her mother and grandmother.
A single mother from Tehran, Nasrin left her homeland with her three children in search of a better life. The four of them spent two years in Eskisehir in northwest Turkey before arriving in the U.S. as refugees in September 2016. She created this falafel, filled with traditional Iranian torshi or pickled eggplant, especially for the Israeli restaurant as part of the third annual Refugee Food Festival that debuted in the U.S. this year.
The festival, which was co-organized by French NGO Food Sweet Food and UNHCR, was held in the run-up to the World Refugee Day on Wednesday. Refugees were invited to cook at participating restaurants across 13 cities worldwide, including Paris, Madrid, Cape Town, San Francisco and New York City.
After she arrived in the U.S., Nasrin, a former food stall owner at a Tehran gym, said she struggled to rebuild her life. But she said everything changed in March 2017 around Nowruz, the Persian New Year, when she found a job at Eat Offbeat, a New York-based catering company, which is run only by refugee chefs from different parts of the world including Eritrea, Algeria, Senegal, and China.
Called "culinary journeys," the menus served by Eat Offbeat are a combination of dishes from the home countries of the refugee chefs.
“When I first came my English was very bad, and all those people who were working with me were from different countries,” Nasrin said. “We got deeply attached with each other [and] the working atmosphere [was] very friendly. This was [to me] a world with no boundaries. We respected each other, [it's] just like family.”
While the low-entry barrier and easy skills training have made it easier for refugees to find employment in kitchens, the dual ability of food to help bond with their new country, while maintaining a connection with home, has benefitted these survivors of war and conflict, Avigail Ziv, executive director of New York and New Jersey at the International Rescue Committee (IRC), told ABC News.
The food service and accommodation, which includes hotels, is one of the top three industries that the IRC said it has placed refugee job seekers in over the last three years. Some of the bigger American chains that have employed its clients include Papa John’s, McDonalds and Chipotle.
“We have definitely seen more catering companies, restaurants crop up that have interest in working with refugees,” said Ziv. “Some of it has been [because of] the increased media attention on refuges in the United States.”
IRC offers various in-house programs and has also had a roster of partners like Eat Offbeat and Emma’s Torch, a culinary training school, to help refugees train and find jobs.
Living in Queens, Nasrin -- who found the job through the IRC -- cooks traditional dishes like Rooz, Mirza Ghasemi and her favorite, Fasenjan for Eat Offbeat while hunting for substitute ingredients at Iranian and Arabic grocery stores in the city.
Her story struck a chord with Einat Admony, the Tel Aviv-born head chef and owner of the Taim.
“My mom is Iranian, [when] she came [to Israel] at the age of 10, they used to live in a tent [with] no money [and] no food,” Admony told ABC News. “I relate to the struggle of refugees here. They are actually going through much more.”
Rose, another refugee who arrived in New York in 2007, has found success in New Roots, IRC’s community garden program where she grows and sells vegetables like red leaf roselle, okra, and peanuts.
After her husband died in 2001, Rose escaped the political unrest at home with her daughter to neighboring Cameroon. There, the former secretary at a Catholic school in Kaga-Bondoro tried finding work in people’s homes. Eventually, she started her first culinary venture -- frying Beignets de Bananes or Banana Fritters.
Shortly after she arrived in New York, she found work at a restaurant but she said it impacted her cholesterol levels and increased her blood pressure. Advised by the doctor to watch her diet, she said that the community garden work at New Roots gave her access to fresh produce, which improved her health.
After training in the IRC Food and Agriculture Training program, she interviewed at Eat Offbeat, which Rose said gave her a sense of community and belonging.
“That helps me because we work as a group, [which has] people from different countries,” she told ABC News. “Everyone takes turns to cook. That helps me to be healthy and to learn about different food from another country. [That] helps me not to stay alone, feel depressed.”
Iraqi sumac salad and Nepali momos are some of the dishes Rose said she has learned from her fellow refugee cooks at Eat OffBeat.
From learning a new language to adjusting to the life in the United States, food has helped these refugee women find a new way forward. While some of them were professional chefs or had experience in the kitchen that could be cultivated, many refugees choose the food industry because of its structural advantages.
“One of the challenges [is] finding jobs that are of interest to the clients that match with the skills and experience that they have,” said Ziv who pointed out that IRC’s clients self-select into the programs offered by the agency and advertised by partners they work with. “[The food industry] also allows them the flexibility to earn some income with experience and skills that they might have in a profession they have interest in but also flexibility to continue their family responsibilities.”
Even though Rose wasn’t a professional chef before she migrated, she said that learning culinary skills came easily to her.
“If you do [become a refugee], you have to become strong and keep going,” she said.
And for those who, like Nasrin, had spent years in the food industry, the Refugee Food Festival gave them a chance to show off their culinary skills.
At Le Coq Rico, a New York City-based upscale French restaurant that participated in the festival, Nasrin curated a $69 three-course Iranian meal. At Taim, her sandwiches sold out in less than five hours. She said her cooking is more than just good food.
“Not only [did] I want to show them how [well] I cook but I wanted to send a message out to all those people who migrate here that they can reach their dream but to achieve that they need to keep working hard,” she said.
Adoumy, who is opening a new restaurant dedicated to couscous, a staple of the North African cuisine she is looking to revive, believes that food builds bridges. At Taim, she has hosted chefs from different regions and cuisines to experiment with the traditional vegetarian Levantine food served at the restaurant.
“As an Israeli girl coming from a country with so much conflict, it has never been about owning something,” she said. “It’s one thing I always believe can actually bond people together.”
Partnering with events like the Refugee Food Festival and coordinating pop-up dinners has done more than just finding refugees a job, said Ziv -- it has helped them build their narrative in a new country.
“It’s really a sharing of the story and humanizing what much of it means to be a refugee,” she said.
The experience has been educational for patrons as well, she added.
“[To] have this personal moment and connection with someone who is a refugee,” she said.
Refugees, many of whom hail from countries that have low immigration to the U.S., have added a new repertoire to the food industry by making it more inclusive and diverse, Krishnendu Ray, Ph.D., a food studies scholar and New York University (NYU) professor, told ABC News. But these refugees serving foods from their home countries to Manhattan clientele, he pointed out, carries an unintended burden.
“It’s good if it transforms people and makes people humane and humanizes them but there also a kind of competitive charity where there is a commodification of a culture,” Ray told ABC News. “Some of them are expensive meals -- this is often poor refugee food then escalated into haute cuisine.”
An essential missing ingredient in the narrative, he said, was spreading awareness about the geopolitical realities that contributed to the creation of their refugee status.
“What this kind of charity work does, it crystalizes in our minds, a people as poor people rather than people who have been dispossessed and made poor by modern political, economic processes that our government has been part of. These initiatives are more powerful if it can bring some long-term point of view of who these people are and where they are coming from and not just be targets of our pity,” he said.
Nasrin, who started cooking with her grandmother when she was in the third grade, has found food to be a powerful means of restoring her country’s reputation.
“I was born in a country, which is full of love. I don’t know what happened,” she said. “I [would] like people to get to know Iranian culture and people more. There [are] some great people back there.”
Though hesitant to talk about her traumatic past, Rose said she tries to cobble together around $500-$600 each month to send to her younger sister and her aunt.
Now, a U.S. citizen, she said that even though she feels safer here the food makes her nostalgic.
“I miss my family and friends all the time but what can I do? It’s difficult to forget where you come from,” she said. “One day when I go back home, I [will] show them how to cook different food."