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'Let me cook you dinner': Europe's refugees find new way to integrate

Bridging divides

In Paris and across Europe, refugee chefs are using their talents to try to both connect with local communities and to help local populations take a more positive view of immigrants.

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    Kibbeh, also known as Syrian meatballs, is served in the kitchen of the Castro restaurant in Budapest, Hungary, in September 2015.
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Mohammad el-Khaldy puts the finishing touches on a plate of kibbeh with lentils and spinach – one of the eight courses he’s prepared for guests at L’Ami Jean restaurant as part of Paris’s Refugee Food Festival.

Just a few years ago, as the chef traveled the common migration route from Syria to Turkey, then to Italy by boat and on to Paris, Mr. Khaldy never could have imagined he’d be using his cooking skills again.

“During my travels, of course I missed cooking,” says Khaldy. “I tried to catch fish on the boat going to Italy. But it wasn’t until I was back in a restaurant that I felt alive.”

Last week’s Refugee Food Festival saw a handful of Paris-based restaurants open their kitchens to visiting refugee chefs from Cote d’Ivoire, Iran, Sri Lanka, Syria, and Chechnya. It is one of a number of initiatives in Europe and the US to provide a space for refugees to not only use their existing skills and connect with local communities, but to allow local populations to gain a positive view of the people within Europe’s refugee crisis.

“In France we have a certain image of refugees that is filled with misery, but that’s not all that exists,” says Stéphane Jego, owner and head chef of L’Ami Jean. “We need to put a face behind these images – there are so many people like Mohammad who had to flee their homes but thanks to their skills, they’re going to make it.”

'The power of food'

As Europe attempts to handle its worst migration crisis since World War II, a key challenge for local governments has been how to integrate newcomers. With many countries struggling with unemployment and lack of housing, the flood of refugees has put a strain on existing resources.

And even when basic needs like housing and working papers are met, many refugees find full integration impossible due to a lack of local language skills or degrees that don’t transfer, says Catherine Wihtol de Wenden, a sociologist at Sciences Po in Paris.

“But being able to use their skills and competencies is really the key to succeeding,” she adds. “For those who are not able to integrate professionally, there is very little possibility of general integration.”

That was ultimately the idea behind the Refugee Food Festival, says co-founder Louis Martin, who got the idea for the festival after cooking his way around the world with his girlfriend.

“We realized the power of food to connect people and get past language barriers,” says Mr. Martin. “It’s able to fortify relationships and it’s extremely uniting. These refugees come with their own unique skill set and many with a culinary expertise.”

'Refugees helping us'

The Refugee Food Festival is just one of many initiatives working to use the power of cooking to bridge communities. The recently launched French nongovernmental organization Le Recho plans to bring cooking classes to Europe’s refugee camps, incorporating volunteer refugee chefs. And for the past two years, the NGO Give Something Back to Berlin has organized weekly cooking events to build connections between refugees and host communities.

They’ve built on more experienced initiatives like the New York-based Eat Offbeat, which has been serving up meals-to-go since 2013, prepared by refugees from Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, and Nepal.

Eat Offbeat co-founder and CEO Manal Kahi says that many of their customers initially come to them because they want to do something to help with the world refugee crisis, but they keep coming back because the food is so delicious. In the end, says Ms. Kahi, the culinary experience ends up bringing as much to the host community as to the refugee chefs.

“Food is the international language,” she says. “We think of it as not only helping refugees but refugees helping us.”

For Khaldy, the Refugee Food Festival is only the tip of the iceberg. He recently prepared a meal for 500 people at Paris’s Hotel de Ville, adding Mayor Anne Hidalgo to his list of fans. And at the end of the month, he’ll open Syrian restaurant Fatooch in central Paris. Food and cooking have been the key, he says, to moving toward integrating fully into his new Parisian life.

“It’s a window into Paris, into the culture,” he says. “Since I started cooking again, I feel different. I’m meeting people and making friends. I realize I still have the power to do something for my family and my culture.”

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