New York Times: The Refugee Food & Art Festival

So happy that our graduate Adwa and the Emma's Torch program were featured in this New York Times story

For Refugee Chefs, This Meal Is a Business Card

By MATTHEW SEDACCA

SEPT. 20, 2017

Adwa Alsubaie had never cooked outside a home kitchen until last May. Two years after she and her sister fled their home in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Ms. Alsubaie, 20, got a job in the kitchen at Emma’s Torch, a brunch spot in Red Hook, Brooklyn, that doubles as a culinary school for refugees and political asylum seekers.

There, she learned to prepare popular American dishes like avocado toast, as well as her own version of shakshuka, a Middle Eastern tomato stew — and to do it quickly, churning out four plates in five minutes.

“I always wanted to be a chef, even before I came here to America,” said Ms. Alsubaie, who left her home country to escape its treatment of women. “Here, in New York, I want to make a business.”

Ms. Alsubaie — now a line cook at the SoHo restaurant the Dutch — will join other asylum seekers, refugees and migrant chefs looking to further their professional prospects by preparing hundreds of appetizers, entrees and desserts for an event this weekend.

From Friday through Sunday, the Refugee Food & Art Festival will be held at the Food Arts Center of the nonprofit vocational organization Fedcap Rehabilitation Service, just a few blocks from the United Nations headquarters in Manhattan. The event is hosted by the food events platform Komeeda, with sponsors including Fedcap; Emma’s Torch; and the International Rescue Committee, a nongovernment organization that provides humanitarian aid and relief.

The festival will feature booths, installations, murals and performances, as well as hors d’oeuvres and meals prepared by the displaced chefs.

According to its founders, the festival — not affiliated with the Refugee Food Festival first held last year in Paris — is the next step in Komeeda’s Displaced Dinner Series, which assists migrants, including refugees and political asylum seekers, with financial need.

For more than six months, refugees and asylum seekers from Syria and Russia have cooked multicourse meals of crispy kibbe and juicy Bedouin chicken for as many as 50 diners at a time. In addition to earning extra income for their labor and sharing their life stories with guests, the chefs have received assistance from diners in job hunting or debt repayment, said Jabber Al-Bihani Jr., Komeeda’s co-founder and chief executive.

“We saw the outreach, the ‘How can I help you? Do you need help getting an interview, a résumé?’” said Mr. Al-Bihani, 29. “And from these dinners, some of the refugees have gotten a ton of financial support, not just from the tickets, but also post-event.”

Nasser Jab, 34, a co-founder of the festival and a refugee from Palestine, said this week’s festival would be larger than the dinners, with a different focus. During the dinners, the migrants predominantly spent their time recounting how they wound up in America; at the festival, they will work to connect with attendees and form professional networks.

For some migrants, like Samer Daas, 43, a cheesemaker from Homs, Syria, this festival could be an important step toward success. After Mr. Daas fled the Syrian civil war with his wife, Rena, the couple resettled in Washington, D.C., nine months ago.

Today, Mr. Daas makes and sells a salty Syrian cow’s milk string cheese topped with black caraway seeds at food bazaars and markets in Washington. He explained, through a translator, that he hopes attending the festival will help him find stable employment, which has been difficult because of his limited English and a backward-bending knee that impedes his walking. Mr. Daas’s long-term goal is to support his family through cheesemaking.

“My dream is to actually have an investor that will start an Arab goods store with me,” Mr. Daas said by telephone. “And eventually, I would make the cheese and sell all these different kinds of products.”

Hajer Naili, the communications and social media coordinator at the United Nations International Organization for Migration, said politicians and the news media often dominate the discussion about refugees and migrants. At the festival, she said, displaced people will be able to express their own views.

“We’ve listened to fear mongers for so long, but not the refugees themselves,” Ms. Naili said. “We should stop and listen to what they have to say.”