Arizona refugee food programs aid melting pot

Asha Adam (left), Nassardhin Abdallah (center), and Metasebyia Tefera (right), distribute food samples and speak with a local Tucsonian at the St. Phillip's Farmers' Market on Sunday, February 1, 2015. (Photo by: Holly Regan/Arizona Sonora News Service)
Asha Adam (left), Nassardhin Abdallah (center), and Metasebyia Tefera (right), distribute food samples and speak with a local Tucsonian at the St. Phillip’s Farmers’ Market on Sunday, February 1, 2015. (Photo by: Holly Regan/Arizona Sonora News Service)

Refugees are settling into Arizona life with the help of a universal staple of life: food.

Groups throughout the state are giving refugees the opportunity to share their cultures and traditions with Arizonans through harvesting and farming, cooking classes and community gardening.

The International Rescue Committee, a New-York-based, not-for-profit organization, helps hundreds of refugees each year when they arrive in Arizona.

Nicky Walker, development manager for IRC in Phoenix, said the New Roots program helps refugees develop their own agricultural businesses through farming, gardening and nutrition classes.

“The New Roots program enables refugees to reestablish their ties to the land, celebrate their heritage and nourish themselves and their neighbors by planting strong roots, literally, in their new communities,” Walker said.

Refugees revitalize urban communities and share their new farming knowledge and fresh food with their families and neighbors, according to Walker. The program assists with four community gardens, 12 backyard gardens, 101 families gardening, 18 families farming, training booths for new refugee gardeners at various farmers’ markets, and even one family doing bee-keeping, according to Walker.  

Arizona is home to the ninth largest refugee population in the country, totaling 3,814 last year, and 73,626 since 1980. Refugees come to the United States after being unable to return to their country because of fear of persecution over their race, religion or nationality, according to Nicole Moon, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Department of Economic Security. 

In Arizona, refugees from Iraq and Vietnam are the largest groups, and Iraqi refugees are the fastest growing group coming to the United States, according to Moon. 

At the Iskashitaa Refugee Network in Tucson, Iraqi refugees often teach other refugees and locals how to use common foods in a new way during cooking classes.

Similar to the New Roots program, Iskashitaa is an organization aimed at helping refugees form ties to the Arizona community through harvesting, cooking classes and potluck events, and farmers’ markets. 

 “Food is something that everyone can relate to, even if you’re coming from different traditions,” said Stephanie Plotas, Food Justice Coordinator at Iskashitaa. “We want to provide opportunities for refugees to get acclimated to Tucson and become a part of the community here.”

In the program, refugees and volunteers harvest from backyards, then redistribute the food to refugee organizations, refugee families and others in need. About 5 to 10 percent is sold in farmers’ markets and used for cooking classes.

“There is quite literally food everywhere. Yet, despite the presence of locally growing edible produce, there are people here who are starving,” said harvesting coordinator Chloe Sovinee-Dyroff. “The sick irony of that fact is something I don’t think you can truly understand or feel until you have seen it.”

Iskashitaa usually harvests twice a week at four to six different backyards in Tucson.

Food preservation classes and cooking classes are also available to refugees and community volunteers. Forty cooking classes and food preservation workshops are offered throughout the year, focusing on food handling safety as well as new ways to use and prepare the harvested produce, according to Plotas. 

“We also give the refugees an opportunity to teach us about what they know about the fruits. There are a lot of things that we harvest that either people don’t consider a food resource or just don’t know how to use it here, but they might be very valuable to the refugees,” Plotas said.  

Iraqi refugees usually use Seville oranges in up to 60 percent of their dishes, in place of lemons, and they teach others how to use Seville oranges during the cooking classes, according to Plotas. 

During one cooking class, an Iraqi refugee shared a unique recipe involving Seville oranges. The orange peel is boiled to take the bitterness out, wrapped in the shape of a snail shell, threaded using a needle and embroidery floss, and cooked in syrup. The final product tastes sour, paired with sweetness from the syrup, according to Plotas.  

The cooking classes give refugees the chance to practice their English while also giving them the opportunity to make friends in the community, which creates a strong network of support for them, according to Plotas. 

“With adjusting to the culture, it’s really helpful for them to have people that they feel like they can go to, they can ask questions, and it’s just really incredible to see the relationships that form,” Plotas said. 

To many refugees, especially Nassardhin Abdallah from Darfur, making connections is an important part of Iskashitaa, and the farmers’ markets are the best way to do that.

“I like it here.” Abdallah said. “I meet new friends.”

Like many refugees in Arizona, Abdallah came to the United States not knowing English. However, conversing with people at harvests and farmers’ markets, Abdallah’s English has improved.

Yewbdar Ergete gives samples of her homemade Ethiopian bread at St. Phillip's Farmers' Market on Sunday, February 1, 2015. Ergete sold all of her bread by the end of the day. (Photo by: Holly Regan/Arizona Sonora News Service)
Yewbdar Ergete gives samples of her homemade Ethiopian bread at St. Phillip’s Farmers’ Market on Sunday, February 1, 2015. Ergete sold all of her bread by the end of the day. (Photo by: Holly Regan/Arizona Sonora News Service)

Introducing the refugees to farmers’ markets is a new initiative by Iskashitaa during the past few months. One of their goals is to help refugees become more acclimated and encourage volunteers to accompany and assist the refugees at farmers’ markets, according to Plotas.

“In the future we would love to have that be another source of income for refugees or a way to support themselves,” Plotas said. 

Some of the foods Iskashitaa Refugee network sells at farmers’ markets include dried sesame crusted barhi dates, blood oranges, pumpkin carob pecan cookies, Ethiopian bread, and candied lemon, grapefruit, and orange rinds. 

 “There is something uniquely beautiful about the cross-cultural exchange of knowledge that happens at Iskashitaa,” Sovinee-Dyroff said. “People from all different places, speaking all different languages, coming from all different cultures, working together to feed Tucson with its own locally growing plants and learning from each other.” 

Another organization aimed at helping refugees, particularly refugee women, in Tucson is Dishes & Stories. Priscilla Mendenhall, who has been helping refugees for over 30 years, created the company with the hopes of it one day being run by refugee and immigrant women. 

Dishes & Stories participates in catering, hosting cooking demonstrations and classes, and selling gluten-free baked goods. 

Dishes & Stories received a $10,000 grant from Rincon United Church of Christ, which allows refugee women to host free cooking classes. 

“They are cooking classes that focus on the recipes that the women brought with them from their moms, and their aunts, and their grandmothers,” Mendenhall said. 

The refugee cooks come from Congo, Iraq, Egypt, Ethiopia, Syria and Sudan, according to Mendenhall.

Mendenhall is now focused on gluten-free baking, which will launch within the next month, with 35 to 40 baked goods to be sold in coffee shops, restaurants, and to individuals. 

“We’re building all these programs around recipes that refugee women learned from the women in their families, so what they are bringing to the table, literally, is their heritage, their skills, their family, and their culture,” Mendenhall said. “And it’s always amazing to me how that becomes a conversation between the cooks and the folks that we’re with.” 

 Holly Regan is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at

 Click here for a Word version of this story and high-resolution photos.

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