Thunder Bay·Audio

Culture Kitchen offers newcomers to Thunder Bay 'great and nice opportunity' to learn, belong

A unique cooking program is helping a group of women, most of whom fled Syria, adapt to their new life in Thunder Bay, Ontario. It is also helping them improve their English, and giving them skills they need to be part of the workforce.
Lubaba Shesho (left), Duha Shaar (middle) and Aya Wadi (right) participated in the Roots to Harvest Culture Kitchen in Thunder Bay, Ontario. They are gearing up to open the second round of the Culture Kitchen Dinner Dash in May. (Cathy Alex/CBC )

A unique cooking program is helping a group of women, most of whom fled Syria, adapt to their new life in Thunder Bay.

The Culture Kitchen, established and operated by the community food and agriculture organization Roots to Harvest in the northwestern Ontario city, helped the 10 newcomers, many of whom were already talented cooks, learn how to fuse the flavours and traditions of their old country with the foods and tastes of their new home.

It also offered them the opportunity to improve their English, and acquire new skills, such as earning their safe food handling certificate from the Thunder Bay District Health Unit.

'Economic opportunity for refugee women'

Participants Duha Shaar and Lubaba Shesho both said receiving those certificates made them "very happy".

Those certificates are often the first thing a restaurant looks for on an application, said Erin Beagle, the executive director of Roots to Harvest.

Duha Shaar cuts pistachioes to put on the shortbread cookies she prepared in the Culture Kitchen. (Cathy Alex/CBC )

The goal of the Culture Kitchen was "to use food as a means to build economic opportunity for refugee women in Thunder Bay, who are new to Canada and new to Thunder Bay, because the employment world is so locked out to them because of language, education or experience," she said.

The program is already helping the women gain a foothold in the work world through the Culture Kitchen Dinner Dash, which sees the group prepare six weekly meals for people who register for the service.

Spaces in the first round of the dash sold out in just four days. Registration for the second round will open in May.

Always 'excited to come, looking forward to next week'

But beyond the economic potential of the program, it is also creating a sense of belonging for the women. 

"Since she was in Syria and then she moved to Turkey, she was afraid and worried, but when she came here, she was more comfy and happy, and the Culture Kitchen especially helped her to get involved in the community," said Aya Wadi, who was acting as the interpreter for her mother Shaar. 

"Every week, she would be excited to come and would look forward to the next week, and the week after."

Also using Wadi to help her translate her thoughts, Shesho said she appreciated the chance to get together with other women "and share our experiences, but also show other people about our culture."

Culture Kitchen participants in Thunder Bay, Ont., gather round as Rhonda Bill of A Fine Fit Catering explains how she prepares a rosemary-infused custard icing for the chocolate tahini cupcakes the women baked. (Cathy Alex/CBC )

"The Culture Kitchen was a great and nice opportunity," she said.

In fact, the time spent at the classes, helping to interpret for the other women, had an unexpected benefit for Wadi, who says "I'm not good at cooking at all," but managed to pick up many new culinary skills during her time in the program.

The three women and the other members of the Culture Kitchen program are serving some of their cooking at the Roots to Harvest annual general meeting (AGM) Wednesay night at 6 p.m. at the Roots to Harvest building on Fort William Road. The AGM is followed by a fun general meeting at 7:30 p.m., where more food will be served.