San Francisco restaurants open kitchens to refugee chefs

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In this photo taken June 19, 2018, Pa Wah, a refugee from Myanmar, mixes shrimp in a turmeric tempura batter at the Hog Island Oyster Co. restaurant in San Francisco during the inaugural Refugee Food Festival. (AP)
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In this photo taken June 20, 2018, a bowl of fresh pita bread made by guest chef Muna Anaee, a refugee from Iraq, beckons from a dining table at Tawla Restaurant in San Francisco during the inaugural Refugee Food Festival. (AP)
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In this photo taken June 20, 2018, Muna Anaee, prepares a ball of khobz orouk, a flatbread she would eat frequently in her native Iraq, at the Tawla restaurant kitchen in San Francisco during the inaugural Refugee Food Festival. (AP)
Updated 24 June 2018
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San Francisco restaurants open kitchens to refugee chefs

  • The Refugee Food Festival started in Paris in 2016 and came to the US for the first time this year
  • The program lets refugees aspiring to be chefs work in professional kitchens

SAN FRANCISCO: At San Francisco’s Tawla restaurant, Muna Anaee powdered her hands with flour and gently broke off a piece of golden dough to prepare bread eaten in Iraq, the country she fled with her family.
Anaee was preparing more than 100 loaves for diners Wednesday night as part of a program that lets refugees aspiring to be chefs work in professional kitchens.
The Refugee Food Festival — a joint initiative of the United Nations Refugee Agency and a French nonprofit, Food Sweet Food — started in Paris in 2016 and came to the US for the first time this year, with restaurants in New York participating as well. The establishments’ owners turn over their kitchens to refugee chefs for an evening, allowing them to prepare sampling platters of their country’s cuisine and share a taste of their home.
Restaurants in 12 cities outside the US are taking part in the program this month.
“It’s been a big dream to open a restaurant,” said Anaee, 45, who now has a green card.
Anaee was among five refugees chosen to showcase their food in San Francisco — each at a different restaurant and on a different night, from Tuesday through Saturday. Organizers say the goal is to help the refugees succeed as chefs and raise awareness about the plight of refugees worldwide.
It’s important to “really get to know these refugees and their personal stories,” said Sara Shah, who brought the event to California after seeing it in Belgium.
Anaee and her husband and two children left Baghdad in 2013 over concerns about terrorism and violence. She worked as a kindergarten teacher in Iraq, not a chef, but was urged to pursue cooking as a career by peers in an English class she took in California after they tasted some of her food.
Azhar Hashem, Tawla’s owner, said hosting Anaee was part of the restaurant’s mission to broaden diners’ understanding of the Middle East — a region that inspires some of its dishes.
“Food is the best — and most humanizing — catalyst for having harder conservations,” she said.
The four other aspiring chefs serving food in San Francisco are from Myanmar, Bhutan, Syria and Senegal.
Karen Ferguson, executive director of the Northern California offices of the International Rescue Committee, said San Francisco was a good city for the food festival.
“We have so much diversity, and we see the evidence of that in the culinary expertise in the area,” she said.
The Bay Area has a high concentration of refugees from Afghanistan, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Eritrea and Burma, though exact numbers are unclear, according to the rescue committee. Its Oakland office settled more than 400 refugees in the Bay Area last year, but the number of refugees settling in the region has fallen dramatically since the Trump administration this year placed a cap on arrivals, Ferguson said.
Pa Wah, a 41-year-old refugee from Myanmar, presented dishes at San Francisco’s Hog Island Oyster Co. on Tuesday. She said she didn’t consider a career in cooking until she moved to California in 2011 and got her green card.
Cooking was a means of survival at the Thailand refugee camp where she lived after escaping civil conflict in Myanmar as a child. Participating in the food festival showed her the challenges of running a restaurant, but also helped her realize she was capable of opening her own, she said.


What We Are Reading Today: Becoming by Michelle Obama

Updated 17 November 2018
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What We Are Reading Today: Becoming by Michelle Obama

  • As Michelle Obama writes in “Becoming,” she long ago learned to recognize the “universal challenge of squaring who you are with where you come from and where you want to go.”

Michelle Obama emerges in her memoir — “Becoming” — as a first lady who steadfastly believed in her husband’s abilities but had no illusions that the sludge of partisanship and racism would melt away under the sunny slogans of hope and change, according to a review published in the New York Times.

She is the wife of the 44th president of the US, Barack Obama, and is the first African-American first lady of the US.

According to NYT critic Jennifer Szalai: “The book is divided into three sections — ‘Becoming Me,’ ‘Becoming Us’ and ‘Becoming More’ — that sound like the bland stuff of inspirational self-help.” 

For all the attempts by conservatives a decade ago to paint her as a radical, Obama seems to be a measured, methodical centrist at heart. But hers is not a wan faith in expanding the pie and crossing the aisle. Her pragmatism is tougher than that, even if it will come across as especially frustrating to those who believe that centrism and civility are no longer enough, the review stated.

As Michelle Obama writes in “Becoming,” she long ago learned to recognize the “universal challenge of squaring who you are with where you come from and where you want to go.”