It is close to midnight on a September Tuesday, and at the Philadelphia International Airport several refugee families take in their first impressions of the city. There is the whirring baggage claim, strangely desolate at this hour. There are lingering taxis and shuttles that loop around the terminal like insects drawn to light. It takes a moment to get one’s footing, firm land rendered strange after days spent on planes and other modes of transport.
Luckily, there are guides. Waiting just past the gate are case managers who will bring these families to their new Philly homes, smoothing the transition as much as possible. Driving north on I-95, the city is an experience of outline more than detail. The Ben Franklin Bridge and City Hall are fully illuminated; the texture of a place that will host a new beginning, less so. This journey has been long, years in the making, and it is difficult to keep one’s eyes open.
Still, there is hunger, that daily human need.
Earlier, in another part of the city, one finds Nadège Umutoni Mukamusoni and her mother planning menus of welcome for these refugee travelers. They know little about the families beyond their countries of origin, which raises questions: Which spice profiles will be familiar? Are there dishes best positioned to offer comfort? Undeterred by the unknowns, the pair works in the kitchen with the rhythmic ease that binds mothers and daughters.
By day, Mukamusoni works as a Professional Medical Interpreter and Case Manager for Philadelphia’s Nationalities Service Center, an organization that provides resettlement and community integration services to hundreds of refugees annually. There, her skills in French, Swahili, and Kinyarwanda (plus three more languages) are a lifeline for Congolese and other African refugees seeking to make sense of life in the U.S.
In recent years, Philly has hosted many arrivals from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where war and human rights violations have caused millions of to flee. Translating across cultures, Mukamusoni sees firsthand how daunting these early days are, encompassing an endless series of office visits, forms, and tasks. When preparing welcome meals, then, her guiding principle is simplicity.
Preparation might go something like this. First, green beans are boiled. When cooked, but still firm, they go to the stovetop to fry, a preparation designed for comfort and nutrition. Onions sizzle and the fragrance of garlic fills the kitchen. The symphony of alliums teases the senses worldwide. When the beans are done, they are dressed with tomato sauce, keeping them from going dry.
Next comes soup, that universal elixir.
Sometimes meat is also prepared, the recipe including a trio of cooking techniques. Beef is boiled with Maggi seasoning, umami delivered in a caramel-brown cube. (When Mukamusoni accompanies new arrivals on their first trips to American grocery stores, they often ask for Maggi.) The beef is next fried until it caramelizes alongside onions and garlic. Finally, everything is boiled in a tomato soup and a bit of the beef’s cooking water, deepening the taste.
No matter what other dishes are prepared, there is always rice, sometimes peppered with green peas.
“Most of the time I make rice, because we don’t know if a family eats meat, or if they eat vegetables,” Mukamusoni explains. She also takes care not to make things too spicy, recognizing that each family has its own national or regional preferences. “Even if we both come from Africa, they may have a different way of cooking – but everyone in Africa eats green beans.”
When all is done, the food is packaged so that it can be easily reheated. Mukamusoni then carries three families’ worth of meals across the city via public transit, somehow remaining light on her feet.
In spite of hectic days, Mukamusoni and others at NSC find time in the evenings to cook for arriving clients some days. Part of the U.S. Resettlement Program, NSC has been advocating on behalf of Philadelphia immigrants and refugees since 1921, and helps hundreds of refugees annually find their footing. The agency’s mission: to foster self-sufficiency and dignity among those fleeing some of the world’s most challenging circumstances. There were 117 arrivals in September alone.
The State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration stipulates that each refugee arriving in the U.S. should be greeted with a hot, culturally appropriate meal. For those coming from the Arab world, this first dinner might be sourced from a Halal restaurant and include a protein, rice and vegetables, says Danielle Bossert, Resettlement Manager for NSC. Perhaps there will be chicken kebabs or shawarma, tabouli or a garden salad.
Whether home cooked or purchased thoughtfully, however, the meals are a symbol of welcoming.
“Many refugees have been traveling for three-plus days,” explains Juliane Ramic, NSC’s Senior Director for Refugee and Community Integration. “There are journeys to get from the camp to the capital city. They usually have to be processed for exit visas. It’s long. It’s hard travel. They’re nervous. So just the act of having a hot meal they can sit down to is powerful.”
Ramic is among those at NSC who occasionally cooks after long hours in the office, stirring up crockpot chicken and roast vegetables for a Syrian family and then getting up early to start up the rice cooker before sending her children off to school. The team effort was especially vital during that busy September, when a hot-meal sign-up sheet in the office ensured that every family was accounted for.
Depending on a refugee’s country of origin, welcome meals may even be prepared by those who have resettled before them. Ultimately, NSC sees this as a powerful first step in creating the people-to-people networks that will set refugees on the path to self-sufficiency. “Any ethnic Nepali coming in this day and age will be greeted with a party and massive amounts of food, because the community is so well established here,” Ramic explains.
Food is fuel. Food is comfort. Yet it is more than that. For this group who has traveled half way across the world, food is a form of hope.
Walking through the doors of their respective apartments for the first time, most everything for a refugee will be unfamiliar, a bit overwhelming. Recognizing this, their case managers stick to the practicalities: showing them the bedrooms and bathrooms, demoing the heating and cooling system, pointing out supplies and groceries. Then – if sleep is not more enticing – it is time to for that first meal in the U.S.
“When I am cooking for new people arriving, I remember myself when I first moved here,” Mukamusoni reflects. “I know I don’t like to eat outside. I like to cook. I like to eat what my family made or what I made myself.”
“Giving people hope, especially our clients, I just feel like it’s an amazing thing that we can do,” she continues. “We know it’s going to be hard for children to go to school. We know this and that will be so hard. But at least when they find a small portion of something they know already, which means a lot to them, that’s a big change.”
“It may even change someone’s perspective when they think: ‘OK, I can find food here, my cultural food. Other things will come, eventually.’ We may not be able to give them money to live the American dream that they always dreamed about, but building hope, faith, and security is empowering them to accomplish even more.”
Jenn Hall writes about food, culture, travel and the places in-between. As an NSC volunteer, she sometimes helps prepare welcome meals. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @jennsarahhall.