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Cooking up a New Life: How Refugees Use Cooking to Thrive


It is often said that the history of immigration is the history of cuisine. Certainly, in the United States, we would still be eating only oysters and beef scrap pies had our country not opened its doors to the millions of Europeans fleeing famine, pogroms, and economic hardships over the last 150 years. America owes its culinary cornucopia to migration. As a nation, we are the beneficiaries of these cuisines – bagels, pizza, and even the humble hot dog that took on a distinctly American touch with a bun that made it portable for people working 12-hour factory shifts.

World Refugee Day provides a moment to reflect on how food can become a powerful tool for those who can no longer go home. The current global refugee crisis amplifies the importance of food as a way for newcomers to integrate into a different place. From the cities like Aleppo, Syria, renowned for its culinary wizardry, to the war-torn city of Mogadishu, Somalia, refugee chefs are the new foot soldiers of a food revolution that is changing the way we understand the world. From humble food trucks to pop-up restaurants, individuals who have fled their homelands are using their national cuisines to teach us about the power of food to change hearts and minds.

Why is food central to the story of refugees? Because when you cannot go home again eating a dish prepared by a chef from your country can reconnect you with your home. Often it is the cuisine of refugee chefs that provides the food memories that form a part of every person’s cultural DNA. Those who have lost everything still retain their culture through the foods they prepare and share. Flavor is also a memory.

What better way to reflect on the plight of over 65 million people than to spend a couple of hours at a restaurant that was started by a refugee. These places are not only spaces where others go to have the taste and smell of their homeland, but ethnic restaurants also allow us a form of culinary tourism that introduce us — and our pallets — to a new culture.

Food has also become a means of survival. Yes, we need to eat to live, but food is also creating livelihoods for people who can no longer work in other fields. In Istanbul, Turkey, where Syrian refugees number in the millions, a new program created by the Center for International Private Enterprise and a local Turkish group, IDEMA, has started a food incubator to help refugees build new food businesses. These refugees pitch their products to investors through a 13-week comprehensive training and mentoring program. You don’t need to speak the language of a new country in order to prepare and sell your food. And food attracts entrepreneurs that see cooking as a way to create a new life. The refugee food space is also a safe environment for women who are using their kitchen skills and culinary expertise of homeland recipes and translating them for others.

Food is also place where entrepreneurial skills can help elevate a cuisine from one shared among members of a specific group to one that turns refugee chefs into local heroes. In major cities across the US, refugee food has become the flavor de jour, with organizations promoting refugee pop-up dinners, catering services, and specialty foods that appear in the most unexpected places. In New York City, Displaced Dinners, the work of Palestinian refugee Nasser Jaber, is helping others to host pop-up dinners where “chefugee” can tell their story while earning some money from eager New Yorkers paying to share a meal.

Or consider Washington, DC, a center of diaspora food since the first Vietnamese refugees settled here in the mid-1970s. The local refugee restaurant scene has become the basis for a course I teach, Conflict Cuisine, to students of international relations, where they study the linkage between wars and food on the refugee population by joining chefs to talk about their journey from a war zone to the kitchen.

In the United States, where xenophobia is increasingly becoming the norm, eating the food of another culture, even one that has become a political target, can help break down barriers that often isolate newcomers from the rest when moving to a new country. Coming around the table is not a hostile act and eating food with your enemies can help build trust among people in ways that no other form of sensitivity training can deliver.

In spite of draconian measures that some governments are using to prevent the flow of refugees from the ravages of war or from the impact of climate change on agriculture, as global citizens there are many things we can do to help the displaced. One simple thing is to support those who make it to our country in small ways: by recognizing that eating their foods and supporting their businesses can go a long way to help many who have used their cuisine to earn a living become part of their new homeland. Isn’t this what our American experience is really all about?

Johanna Mendelson Forman

Editorial Board Member

With more than two decades of experience in the international arena, working on post-conflict transition and democratization issues, Johanna Mendelson Forman holds a wealth of expertise and insights into the role of food in driving conflict and connecting people and communities. An Adjunct Professor at American University’s School of International Service where she teaches "Conflict Cuisine®: An Introduction to War and Peace Around the Dinner Table," Mendelson Forman encourages new ways of looking at diplomacy, conflict resolution, and civic engagement. She is also a Senior Advisor at the Stimson Center where she directs the Food Security program.


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