MARIETTA, Georgia — In 2022, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) published a cookbook titled “From Our Table to Yours: Fusion Cuisine.” The book chronicles stories of forcibly displaced people, providing insight into the lives of people forced to start over while sharing recipes from these refugee communities.
Using Cooking to Create a Livelihood
For refugees, food serves as a way to preserve their home countries and cultures. This is the case for 39-year-old Natasha who sought asylum in Belize with her daughter. The mother and daughter pair forcibly fled El Salvador after they received threats from gang members, according to the U.N. Belize.
“Gang members harassed me and my daughter… they wanted [her]to join,” said Natasha to the U.N. Belize. After learning that the gang had killed her friend’s daughter, Natasha fled the country with only materials that could fit into a backpack.
After relentless job searching in Belize, Natasha began to fear that she would not be able to provide for her daughter. Turning her hobby of cooking into a livelihood, she decided to use food as a way to support herself and her daughter while in Belize. Natasha now sells her own version of local dishes “with a Salvadorian twist.” Natasha tells U.N. Belize, “I’ve been fortunate enough to have found many friends here who have taught me Belizean recipes.” One of Natasha’s dishes, “chicken with rice and beans,” can be found in the UNHCR-published cookbook, “From Our Table to Yours: Fusion Cuisine.”
According to facts from the cookbook, a survey of nutrition in the Americas indicates that 65.5% of refugee and migrant families’ highest priority is “to meet their needs for food, shelter and clothing.” Migrant families such as Natasha and her daughter face an urgency to survive in a new country. There are those who are not as fortunate as Natasha, however. About 71.7% of survey respondents indicated that they needed to “reduce the quantity or quality of food consumed” each day.
The cookbook shares stories of people who use their kitchen to make a consistent source of income and avoid poverty. In an interview with The Borgen Project, Jose Romero Vasquez, communications associate for UNHCR in the Americas, said Natasha viewed a copy of the Fusion Cuisine cookbook and felt ecstatic to know that a global audience intends to try her recipe. Natasha stays in touch with Vasquez and has undergone an application for permanent residency in Belize. “UNHCR, through its partners, has been supporting her in the application process,” said Vasquez.
The Fusion Cuisine cookbook represents the community of refugees from Latin America and the Caribbean. “The book brings together recipes that combine flavors and sensations, representing a fusion of the countries of origin and the host countries of 14 refugees and forcibly displaced persons in the region,” the UNHCR says. The people behind the recipes “share their [stories], memories, emotions, the dreams they have achieved and the ones that are yet to be fulfilled,” the UNHCR highlights on its website.
Power of Inclusion
In addition to recipes, the creators of the Fusion Cuisine cookbook acknowledged the importance of sharing the cooks’ stories and aspirations. “At UHCR, we believe in the power of gastronomy as a key way to foster inclusion and dialogue between communities,” said José Samaniego, regional director of UNHCR in the Americas in an article covering Fusion Cuisine.
Refugees are a marginalized group and are highly susceptible to poverty due to their vulnerabilities. Refugees often face discrimination and have limited access to essential resources. Fusion cuisine fosters inclusion through food and gives refugees the chance to escape poverty by establishing livelihoods.
According to Vasquez, UNHCR works to share with the public the stories of people seeking asylum. When it comes to the Fusion Cuisine cookbook, Vasquez said that the book stood as “a really effective way of reaching that goal because it highlights something that we can all relate to — preparing and enjoying a delicious home-cooked meal.”
The Story of Alfredo
The Fusion Cuisine cookbook tells the story of a 68-year-old retired teacher named Alfredo, who fled to Chile from Venezuela. Alfredo’s low monthly pension did not permit him to afford food essentials in his home country. He only had enough money to afford “a few kilos of rice or a half dozen eggs.”
Alfredo embarked on a journey to Chile where his daughter and grandchildren awaited his arrival in Santiago, the capital of Chile. Still, finding a new job in a new country proved difficult. “For many months I knocked on many doors but there was always some reason not to hire me,” Alfredo said to the U.N.
Finally, Alfredo found a volunteer position at a local soup kitchen where he learned to make plenty of Chilean dishes. The Fusion Cuisine cookbook highlights one of his traditional Venezuelan recipes, ‘pabellón criollo,’ a beef stew served with rice and beans.
“This dish has so many meanings for me — it means Venezuela,” said Alfredo to the U.N. “When I was a child and they cooked this dish in my house, it made me happy. Today, I smell it and I remember that happiness.”
Vasquez said he knew Alfredo before the cookbook publication and wanted him to feature. “He is widely known for being a very charismatic person within his community,” said Vasquez.
Poverty Statistics among Displaced Persons
According to the Refugee Data Finder provided by UNHCR, as of June 2022, there are 89.3 million forcibly displaced persons globally. There are 27.1 million refugees and 4.6 million asylum seekers trying to establish new lives in safer places. The UNHCR highlights that 83% of the world’s refugees reside in countries of low and middle income. Furthermore, more than two-thirds of refugees supported by UNHCR come from five nations — Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, Myanmar and South Sudan. The majority of refugees, about 6.8 million, come from Syria. According to Brookings, in Lebanon, “an estimated 90[%] of Syrian refugee households live in extreme poverty, up from 55[%] in early 2019.”
Empowering Refugee Communities
When someone is forcibly removed from their home, “the simple act of preparing a meal can have an outsized significance,” says Vasquez. Food means a lot to a person and is used as a tool to integrate refugees into their new homes. The Fusion Cuisine cookbook not only allows people seeking asylum the chance to share recipes with their new home countries but also with a global audience.
According to Vasquez, UNHCR works with Help for Progress. This organization provides assistance to refugees in the form of, “basic needs, skills training, English as a Second Language, legal support and psychosocial and livelihood support,” said Vasquez. Through the assistance of Help for Progress, Natasha received help with her daughter’s schooling and the UNHCR discovered Natasha’s cooking talent.
Vasquez says the UNHCR website published a feature story titled “For many displaced people in Latin America, new lives start in the kitchen” after the Fusion Cuisine cookbook launched on digital platforms. Vasquez says the UNHCR printed copies of the cookbook to present to the refugee cooks featured in the book. “Because of the positive audience reception, the communications team in the region is interested in pursuing other projects focused on the topics of cooking and integration,” said Vasquez.
The cookbook allows the public to learn about different dishes from all over the Americas and provides background about the cooks behind each culinary creation, simultaneously raising awareness of the global refugee crisis. Thanks to the efforts of UNHCR, the public can gain a better understanding of the circumstances and barriers forcibly displaced persons face while rebuilding their lives in another country. The inspirational stories of refugees putting their skills to use to survive will help garner more international support for this vulnerable population.
– Henry Hyman
Photo: Courtesy of UNHCR