A Warm Welcome to Heat and Serve

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In contemplating a refugee’s path, food is just one of many markers of change. It can also be a powerful form of connection.

By Jenn Hall, NSC Volunteer

For a non-chef, it’s a different kind of cooking experience to prepare a meal for someone you have never met. What to make, when you don’t know someone personally? How to craft a menu poised to say, “welcome”?

As part of NSC’s home set-up process, refugees are provided with a hot, culturally appropriate meal on arrival. It’s a small detail in an incredibly complicated and detailed process. Yet it speaks volumes about the desire to provide those who have been displaced with a sense of homecoming.

In the refrigerator, ready to be reheated, will be something nourishing—perhaps even familiar. Often, NSC team members prepare these meals after long hours, having spent the day securing housing or counseling new arrivals.

“At night, I’ll sometimes prepare meals for Syrian families in my crockpot,” shares Juliane Ramic, NSC, Senior Director for Refugee Resettlement and Community Integration. It’s a team effort.

In a week with many arrivals and too few hands, my husband and I volunteer to cook. Planning dinner for an Afghani refugee who will arrive well after midnight, we start our research with the Internet. What will be grounding after a long journey, a source of comfort? On a more basic level, what comprises the Afghani pantry?

Eventually, we settle on a menu: chicken korma, a curry with turmeric, yogurt, and yellow lentils; rice perfumed with warming spices; and Afghani salata, a simple salad of cucumber, tomatoes, and parsley, dressed with lemon and crushed mint. For dessert, we make milk pudding, scented with rose water and cardamom.

While the meal may not evoke the foods of home perfectly, it provides an opportunity to learn about and engage another culture while being a part of the enormous resettlement underway in Philadelphia. In September 2016 alone, NSC expects 118 arrivals. That’s a lot of hot meals to be prepared.

Chef Alex Atala of São Paulo has said that food is the line where nature meets culture. It is also a repository for memory—of people, of place, of culture.  In contemplating a refugee’s path, food is just one of many markers of change.  It can also be a powerful form of connection. 

In the kitchen, I learned something small about Afghani culture. In another kitchen, later, I hope that the resulting meal was enjoyed.

To learn how you can help with Philadelphia’s resettlement effort, visit our Volunteer page. Donations can be dropped off Monday through Friday between 9am and 5pm at NSC's headquarters (1216 Arch Street 4th Floor, Philadelphia PA 19107). See a list of urgently needed items here. Tax receipts are available for donations of goods.