Refugees in Canada share recipes and tastes of home in new digital cookbook
Syrian refugee says making food from home honours legacy of people she misses
For Aya Wadi, a Syrian refugee who has settled in Thunder Bay, Ont., cooking and sharing food is a way to remember the family she had to leave behind.
"All of us broke apart. My aunts are in Egypt, my uncles are in Turkey now — we are here in Canada," said Wadi, 24, who fled Syria with her family in 2017.
"And unfortunately, my grandmother passed away last summer."
Wadi has fond memories of helping her grandmother make her recipe for ma'amoul — date-filled cookies — with the help of her own mother and aunts. They would share the sweet treats after they had fasted for Ramadan, and judge who made them the best.
She's now sharing those memories and the recipe for ma'amoul with Canadians, in a cookbook released last month by the UN Refugee Agency in Canada. The cookbook, Tastes from Home: Recipes from the Refugee Community, features recipes from all over the world, contributed by refugees who have made Canada their home.
Wadi says sharing these recipes with people in her new home is a way of appreciating and honouring the times she spent cooking with family.
"Especially my grandma, for this great legacy that she left behind, her recipes, that she was able to share with my Mom, and my Mom now is sharing it with me," she told The Current's Matt Galloway.
The book is available for free online, with each download prompting a third-party donation to support refugees and their families.
Food connects us: UN representative
Rema Jamous Imseis, representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Canada, said the book is a way for refugees to share their culture and experiences through a theme that everyone understands — food.
"Whether or not you understand refugees or the conflicts from which they come, everybody gets food. Everybody enjoys food," she told The Current.
"This is a way that we can have a conversation about that."
Wadi and her mother also opened a restaurant, Royal Aleppo Food, in Thunder Bay in 2020, which has done well despite the pandemic.
"They were so excited to take the food," she said, which was "a big motivation for us to to work harder and just share more food with the community."
For restaurateur Yasmen De Leon, food is something that overcomes our different languages and cultures to unite us.
Her recipe for the cookbook is for tamales made from masa dough, stuffed with chicken, and steamed in corn husks.
"All people in every corner of the world, a long time ago, had some dish or some type of dough in a leaf, that was steeped," said De Leon, who runs the restaurant Comal y Canela in Toronto.
"I think it's sort of like a primordial dish that symbolises that we are all one."
Familiar foods bring comfort
De Leon was born in Mexico, but settled in Canada when she was a teenager. She has often struggled to find the ingredients she needs for traditional Mexican food.
"I think the majority of refugees can relate to that, not being able to find certain ingredients and grabbing a little bit of this and a little bit of that to try to recreate that flavour and taste that reminds you of your home, of your childhood," she said.
De Leon remembers the difficulties her mother had finding certain ingredients, and that their "home was always filled with food, and my Mom doing little experiments."
Rivka Augenfeld, a lifelong advocate for helping refugees, said people who arrive in a new country sometimes struggle if the food they're used to isn't available.
She remembers a time when Canadians didn't understand how difficult that could be, even if they were helping new arrivals settle in.
"Even when the Vietnamese boat people were coming, some people were saying, 'Well, [the new arrivals will] just have to learn to eat like us' — whatever that means," she told Galloway.
She said some Canadians who didn't normally eat rice weren't willing to buy it for new arrivals.
"And I said, are you crazy? You have to help people in the beginning with something that's familiar," she said.
Nowadays, cuisine from all over the world is popular in Canada, and Augenfeld tried to remind people that "the cook comes with the food."
"If you like the food, you have to think about the people who brought it," she said.
After Holocaust, food brought survivors together
Augenfeld was born "stateless" in a displaced persons camp in Austria, in 1946, and came to Canada two years later with her parents, who were Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust.
"It's hard to believe that at the time, when all those Holocaust survivors came, nobody wanted to talk about it," she said.
"So they had to be amongst themselves to be understood, even without talking."
Her own memories of that are tied to her mother's very open home, and the honey cake she would serve. Augenfeld contributed the recipe for that cake to the cookbook.
"Honey cake was a wonderful moment that my mother served at dessert after the meal, and everyone just ooohed and aaahed," she told Galloway.
"The honey cake for me represents that sharing of something delicious and something that creates family."
2020 left refugees in limbo
Augenfeld said many refugees are now "sitting in different places in the world," stranded because of the pandemic.
"Some of them even have visas for Canada and they can't come in, they're suffering," she said.
Jamous Imseis said pandemic travel restrictions have meant that "2020 was a very tough year for refugees."
"Resettlement globally was at an all-time low last year," she said, adding that "refugees experienced COVID as an emergency on top of an existing emergency."
UNHCR data shows that 15,425 refugees were resettled in new countries between Jan.-Sept. 2020, compared to 50,086 over the same period last year.
A large portion of those refugees have been resettled in Canada. While the federal government's target for 2020 was nearly 32,000 refugees, in December a spokesman for Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino said the end-of-year figure will be closer to 7,000.
That has left many refugees in limbo, approved to come to Canada but unable to do so.
But while the pandemic brought many parts of life to a standstill, the number of refugees was increasing.
In the most recent figures available, the UNHCR estimates more than 80 million people had been forced from their homes in the first half of 2020, an increase of more than half a million people since the beginning of the year.
For most people displaced by war or disaster, the work of the UNHCR is to help them return home. Where that's not possible, some will stay in the neighbouring country where they have found shelter.
Only about one per cent of the world's refugees will resettle in a third country like Canada, Jamous Imseis said.
She hopes that resettlement can resume in earnest in 2021, and said the UNHCR has "had very strong support from the Canadian public for our work."
Even through the pandemic, she said she's seen "a generosity and solidarity from Canadians who know that although the situation is bad in Canada, it is infinitely worse for people who don't have roofs over their heads."
Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Alex Zabjek.