Their refuge includes a kitchen
Vermont student gathers recipes from those resettled there
WINOOSKI, Vt. - Suhad Murad juggles three pots on the stovetop and two in the oven. The Iraqi native is assembling a meal from home, an array that includes lentil soup, biryani with baked chicken, and an eggplant, tomato, and ground beef casserole. She moves deftly, pan-frying chopped vermicelli in a skillet, then tossing it with toasted almonds and raisins; mixing spices and water in a pan, then adding basmati rice; chopping cucumbers, tomatoes, and peppers for a salad. Breaking her concentration every few minutes is 4-year-old Abdullah, who leaps into the kitchen like Spider-Man, his favorite superhero.
Murad’s biryani is one of 40 dishes compiled for “A Mosaic of Flavors: New Americans Adding Spice to Life in Vermont.’’ The cookbook is sponsored by the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program and written and photographed by Caroline Casey, a University of Vermont senior who is an intern at the organization. The recipes are all from refugees who have been resettled in the Burlington area, some as recently as five months ago, others for almost 20 years.
“No matter where you’re from, food is something that brings people together,’’ says Casey, who spent the summer watching about 20 cooks prepare dishes from their native countries. The cookbook features samosas from Somalia, fried sweet bread rolls from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, potato balls, rice flour cookies and rice pudding from Bhutan, curries and coconut mango sticky rice from Myanmar, and semolina cake from Iraq.
Casey, 21, was drawn to the project because she knows how important food is as an expression of culture. An anthropology and African studies major, she lived in Ghana for five months last spring. “It was a huge culture shock to live in a foreign country,’’ she says. “I missed the foods from home.’’ The experience inspired her to help refugees here make the transition. The cookbook is in the process of being completed; VRRP is currently looking for financing to print books.
VRRP is a field office of the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, the largest nonsectarian organization that handles refugee resettlement, explains Laurie Stavrand, community partnership coordinator. It will resettle about 350 refugees this fiscal year, bringing the total to 5,500 in the past 22 years. (Refugees are defined as people who are forced to flee their homes and countries due to persecution, war, or violence. Many live for decades in United Nations refugee camps. Only a small percentage are selected to resettle in the United States.) Most resettlement organizations attempt to create communities of people from specific countries; this helps ease the transition and fosters a sense of culture and continuity. VRRP has recently worked with refugees from Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), Bhutan, Somalia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Iraq.
Contributing recipes to the book is an opportunity for them to share their culture, says Stavrand. Often, there are spices and other ingredients that are not available, but as communities grow, ethnic grocery stores crop up. About a year ago, Suhad Murad’s father-in-law opened a Middle Eastern shop, Nadia International Market, in Winooski. “Before Nadia, it was a little hard,’’ says Murad, “but now everything is there.’’
Murad, her husband, Zaki Arif, and their children Basma, 9, Dima, 7, and Abdullah have lived in Vermont for three years. Her husband’s family moved here, but hers remains in Baghdad. She misses them dearly, she says.
When her feast is ready, she arranges basmati rice on a platter and tops it with the mixture of pan-fried vermicelli, almonds, and raisins, and pieces of baked chicken. The room is redolent with aromas of curry and sweet spices. Cumin wafts from the creamy lentil soup and the eggplant casserole is wonderfully garlicky. “Arabic women are good cooks because Arabic men like to eat,’’ says Murad.
New residents have to readjust and relearn so much, says Casey. She found that when she went to their homes, the roles were reversed. “For a small moment they’re not learning, they’re teaching,’’ she says.
In one kitchen, Casey was asked to cook. A Bhutanese family had received a banana bread as a gift and they wanted to learn how to make it. But it turned out they didn’t eat eggs, she says. “So we just added more oil.’’
Lisa Zwirn can be reached at email@example.com.