Finding Home One Plate at a Time
Pittsburgh’s refugee communities use food as a common language to build support systems.
Serap Uzunoglu, an English-language teacher from Turkey, was leading her students on an educational tour of the United States in July 2016 when there was an attempted coup in her home country. The insurgents failed to overthrow the Erdoğan government. In the crackdown that followed, thousands of the country’s teachers — especially those such as Uzunoglu, who were followers of the Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen — were fired. Many were arrested.
“They were trying to make the educated people silent. The thought of going back was like rolling the dice. What if they took us at the airport?” she says, adding, “There are many people just like me who are now in prisons.”
She, her husband and her daughters were stranded in New York City. All they had with them was what they’d taken for their 21-day trip. New York was much too expensive for them, and, after some discussion, they decided to resettle in Pittsburgh, drawn by its affordability and the potential for their children to one day attend its outstanding universities.
Once living a stable middle-class life in Turkey, Uzunoglu and her husband found entry-level jobs at a Turkish-owned pizza shop Downtown. “Suddenly, you have almost nothing. How do you rent a house? How do you get around to where you need to go?” Uzunoglu says.
Uzunoglu is one of approximately 5,500 refugees — defined as people who have been forced to leave their country to escape war, persecution or natural disaster — who have resettled in the region since 2003; more have relocated here via secondary migration. Notwithstanding living with the trauma of being torn from one’s homeland, Pittsburgh’s refugee population faces numerous challenges adapting to a new country. Yet, slowly, they are building a home here.
The population is smaller than similarly-sized cities such as Buffalo and Salt Lake City. But Pittsburgh, informed by directives from Mayor Bill Peduto’s administration as well as through community involvement, is increasingly visible as a welcoming place for refugees.
“There’s this misinformation they’re just getting a free ride in the United States. That’s not the case. They have to start earning income in four to six months. They pay taxes,” says Leslie Aizenman, director, refugee and immigrant services, of Jewish Family and Community Services, one of the groups responsible for resettling refugees in Pittsburgh.
Uzunoglu, who had a leg-up on many refugees because of her fluency in English, has been able to make the best of a life-altering shift, starting a catering company, as well as leading a support group of other refugees where cooking recipes from their home countries provides a common bond.
“By sharing our food, I feel more like a member of the [Pittsburgh] community,” she says. Food plays a pivotal role in helping Pittsburgh’s refugee communities build a support system. It allows them to hold on to and pass on the culinary traditions of their native countries while at the same time forge a sense of belonging in their new home.
“Oftentimes, you weren’t able to carry your possessions with you. A recipe, in your heart, in your head, on a piece of paper, will make you feel like you’re connected to home,” says Sloane Davidson, founder and CEO of Hello Neighbor, a nonprofit that pairs Pittsburghers with refugee families.
THE BHUTANESE MEAN BUSINESS
Pittsburgh’s Bhutanese community, according to Khara Timsina, Bhutanese Community Association of Pittsburgh’s executive director, has grown to more than 6,000 over the past decade, with slightly more than half arriving in Pittsburgh via secondary migration. By a wide margin, it’s Pittsburgh’s largest resettled refugee community.
In the late 1980s, the Bhutanese government, as part of its “One Nation, One People” policy, began to force the Lhotshampa — ethnic Nepali who migrated to Bhutan in the 1890s (some as early as the 1600s) — to dress in traditional Bhutanese attire, prohibited Nepalese language training and restricted religious liberty; Lhotshampa primarily follow a form of Hinduism, while ethnic Bhutanese are Buddhist. Arrests and detentions followed, leading to expulsion to refugee camps in Nepal. Following years of failed mediation between the governments of Nepal and Bhutan, the United States offered to take in as many as 60,000 Bhutanese refugees. In 2008, that resettlement began, with 178 Lhotshampa moving to Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh’s topography reminds them of home. “The landscape, the hills, it’s very similar to Nepal,” says Sachin Kunwav, who runs a small restaurant, Namaste Momo Corner, with his wife, Deepshika Ghimire.
A little more than a decade in, the community is still dealing with an as-yet undiagnosed depression disorder that primarily affects elderly Bhutanese refugees; it was a suicide in 2009 that prompted the founding of the community association. At the same time, they are starting businesses ranging from clothing boutiques to real estate offices, and members of the Bhutanese community now are opening restaurants. There are four in the South Hills — Namaste Momo Corner, Everest Kitchen, Himali Kitchen and Nepali Asian Restaurant — as well as Subba on the North Side.
The restaurants primarily serve food that is Bhutanese-Nepali in origin. It’s a crossroads cuisine that’s influenced by the culinary traditions of its large neighboring countries, China and India, as well as its indigenous ingredients. The most popular Nepali dish in the United States is momo, steamed dumplings that are filled with diced meat or vegetables spiced with onion, garlic, ginger and cilantro. Chow mein, Chinese in origin but tilting Indian in flavor profile, is another staple.
“People in Pittsburgh are starting to get to know our culture and our food. Our food is getting famous now,” says Bhumika Upreti, the community association’s program administrator.
On a hot August afternoon, Kunwav is tending to the front of the house at Namaste Momo Corner while Ghimire is in the Brentwood restaurant’s open kitchen. Kunwav is Nepali and Ghimire was born in Bhutan but grew up in a refugee settlement in Nepal. They met through a mutual friend and communicated via Facebook Messenger and other services for several years prior to getting engaged.
Ghimire is dressing a freshly steamed batch of momos with a house-made sauce of pan-toasted sesame seeds, tomato, onion, chili pepper and cilantro, all ground together to form a fragrant, spicy accent to the juicy dumplings. “It’s very humble food, and our menu is small, but people love it and they keep coming back,” says Kunwav.
Ghimire and Kunwav opened their pocket-sized restaurant, painted lavender and sky blue, in September 2018. As its name indicates, the specialty is various forms of momo. Among them are sadeko momo, which are fried and tossed with vegetables and herbs; jhol momo, steamed and served in a broth reminiscent of pozole; and c-momo, dressed in a fiery chili sauce, heavy on the garlic, that’s served with green peppers and onions. “We’re not the perfect chefs. But we know how to give people a taste of home,” says Ghimire, who learned how to cook in Nepal and worked as a soup-maker at Giant Eagle’s Cranberry warehouse for two years prior to opening Namaste Momo.
Down the hill from Namaste Momo Corner is Everest Kitchen. The banners of Pittsburgh’s three professional sports teams are pinned below the Hindu prayer shawls that rope the restaurant. High-quality Nepali music videos pop on the restaurant’s flat-screen TV. A meal here might start with suja, the savory beverage otherwise known as butter tea. The whipped mix of butter, salt and black tea is comforting.
On weekends, there is a limited menu of Bhutanese cuisine. The most notable dish is ema datshi — chilis and cheese. The fire of the chili is tamed by the cheese sauce, which is reminiscent of festival or county fair food, but lighter and more nuanced. Phagha paa adds rashers of soft pork belly and radish greens to the mix.
While shopping for ingredients wasn’t much of an issue early on since Bhutanese and Nepali cuisines share many ingredients with Indian and Chinese dishes — it’s even easier now as there are at least seven Bhutanese-owned grocery stores in the region. “If one store doesn’t have it, another store will,” Upreti says.
Upreti says that children who were too young to remember the refugee camps are forgoing spicy foods in favor of pizza, pasta and chicken wings.
For her generation, which bridges the gap between the more Americanized youth and Timsina’s more traditional culture, the diet also straddles the divide. “People who are my age and younger are more into American food. We love our chow mein and momo, but not all the time. We want to try other things,” she says.
Still, the draw of a home-cooked meal and a taste of heritage is impossible to pass up. “I do love pasta. It’s my favorite of all time. But if I eat American food for a day or two, I need to eat something with spice after that. I cannot go more than a few days without eating our food,” she says.
WON’T YOU BE …
In 2016, Davidson, who had worked in the nonprofit sector, spent Thanksgiving with a Syrian refugee family as a participant in an AirBnB share-a-meal program. In the months following the meal, she formed a friendship with the family. That, and the conversations surrounding it, sparked an idea — what if she could pair more locals with refugee families? Refugees only get structured social support from the federal government for a short period, and, following that, many find it challenging to navigate American culture.
In 2017, Davidson formed the first Hello Neighbor cohort group — 25 Pittsburgh families were paired with refugee families from Afghanistan, Bhutan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Myanmar, Rwanda and Syria. Now on its fourth cohort, 95 families have been matched with refugees from 12 countries (Algeria, Ivory Coast, Sudan, South Sudan and Somalia having been added to the mix).
Each cohort runs for six months, during which Hello Neighbor organizes activities and outings; paired families are expected to commit 10 hours a month to each other. The bonds that form almost always transcend the organized commitment. They help with activities as basic as figuring out public transit, where to take their kids for an ice cream cone or the benefits of the public library but guidance can extend to something as important as navigating the birth of a child.
Inevitably, things always circle back to food.
“If they don’t have the language, if you can’t talk about your culture and your country and the things you hold dear, you can show it, and one way you can show it is through sharing food,” Davidson says.
Niang Za Hau lives with her husband, Pum Khan, and their two children, who go by their English names Elizabeth and Sam, in a small apartment in Carrick. Natives of Myanmar (formerly Burma), they resettled in Pittsburgh in 2013. Prior to that, they lived in harsh conditions in refugee camps in Thailand and Malaysia; Hau says the situation in Malaysia was especially brutal. While life was easier in Pittsburgh, it was isolating.
“When I came here, it felt like I didn’t have any friends,” says Hau, through an interpreter.
Two years ago, as part of Hello Neighbor’s first cohort, they were paired with sisters-in-law Barbara and Carol Reichbaum. “We were very disturbed about the way things were going in this country, particularly when it came to refugees. Maybe this was a way we could redirect the anger and do something positive,” says Barbara Reichbaum.
On a rainy autumn evening, Reichbaum, her husband, Lee, and adult son, David, present Hau with a photo album filled with memories of outings from the past two years — plus plenty of empty pages to fill in the future — and David offers a jar of pickled hot peppers from the family’s annual canning party. But today, it’s Hau who is doing the cooking. She learned to cook when she was 12, taking the role of household caretaker while her parents went to work; when she was 15, she found employment cooking as a domestic worker.
Among the spread is fish noodle soup with homemade broth. It’s an aromatic, soulful and restorative bowl that Hau fills with chicken and quail eggs, onion, garlic, cilantro and fishcake; she offers lime, pepper, hot sauce, fish sauce and fried garlic for garnishing. Alongside it is steamed fish, vibrant with the flavor of lemongrass, double-cooked chicken, al-dente snow peas and broccoli dressed with garlic, more greens and rice.
Hau says the fish soup is a special occasion dish. “The way you feed us is a gift,” says Reichbaum.
Reichbaum and the rest of her family repay that gift repeatedly — for example, with David taking on a role as an older brother or young uncle for Sam, reading books and talking about the Pittsburgh Pirates losing season.
“This is good for my children. This is a true friendship,” Hau says.
“You begin to do these things together, and pretty soon, you realize you have more things in common than you have differences,” Reichbaum says.
Twenty minutes away in Carnegie, another Hello Neighbor duo is having a get-together.
Seham and Hassan Almasari, along with their children Razan, Ali, Hoda and Omar, are among millions displaced by the ongoing civil war in Syria. They are sitting on the floor sharing dinner with Jeremy and Christine Kobeski, plus their children, Jackie, Katie, Caroline, Mary Ellen and William. Ever since their first meeting in October 2018, meals between the pair of religious families are demonstrative that sectarian divisions are less important than human connection.
“We’re a big family now. Catholic and Muslim. It doesn’t matter,” says Christine Kobeski.
On this evening, Sheham Almasari prepared dinner, and the star of the show is hashwet al-ruz — rice cooked with spices such as turmeric and cardamom, topped with hand-chopped Halal lamb and variety of toasted nuts. Alongside are hand-made pastries stuffed with cheese, spicy ground beef or spinach and cheese, savory lentil soup and salad. For dessert, there is namoura, a Syrian treat made with yogurt, sugar, semolina. And, there’s also something a little more American — Rice Krispie treats.
Almasari started cooking when she was 16, learning from her mother-in-law and sister-in-law. She says ingredients for her recipes are easy to find here, so she hasn’t had to change much. And although her children have developed a taste for dishes such as pasta and pizza, they still crave home cooking, particularly grape leaves. “It will be important for me to pass these recipes on to them,” she says.
Hassan Almasari says his family is settling in, but it was challenging at first because neither he nor his wife is fluent in English. In 2016, when his family arrived in Pittsburgh after living for several years in a refugee camp in Jordan, a better life still seemed far away. “The first month here, I wanted to go back to Jordan,” he says.
He sometimes misses his home in Syria, too. Almassari used to be a travel agent, and he speaks with saudade when recalling his life there. “Syria is such a beautiful country. I hope to see it again someday. I hope you will see it someday, too,” he says.
He says that his family’s Hello Neighbor relationship with the Kobeski family is instrumental in helping them build a new life in Pittsburgh. Indeed, the Kobeskis even went to the hospital for the birth of the newest addition to the Almassari family, Omar, now 10 months old.
It’s the relationship between the children, who have forged a cousin-like bond with each other, that foretells an optimistic vision of what the next generation of Pittsburgh might look like. “There are no barriers between them. It’s a joy to see that,” says Jeremy Kobeski.
GROWING A SENSE OF FOOD SOVEREIGNTY
The oppressive heat of summer has broken, giving way to warm, dry weather that has lingered the entire month of September, a boom to the region’s farmers and gardeners. In a nearly 1-acre Mwanakuche Community Garden in Perry South, the pepper plants, hot and sweet varieties, are robust under the afternoon sun. Corn stalks rise to match the Downtown Pittsburgh skyline visible on the horizon, many with two or three starchy, nutritious ears drying on the plant.
There’s work to do. Today is the day to make room for another round of hearty greens, lettuce and squash. And the crops need to be watered, which must be done by a person with a hose, since irrigation lines have yet to be installed.
That job goes to Bare Bule. He’s one of the seven elders in Pittsburgh’s approximately 700-person Somali Bantu community who regularly works in the field. “We come from people who are farmers. Especially for the elders, this was part of their life when they were younger,” says Abdulkadir Chirambo, president of the United Somali Bantu of Greater Pittsburgh.
Chirambo remembers the date he came to the United States — he was resettled in Erie on June 18, 2004 — but isn’t sure if he was 14 or 15. He grew up in refugee camps in Kenya. While he didn’t have much access to books, he did his best to read whatever he could, which helped him learn English. In 2011, he graduated from Pittsburgh Technical Institute and returned to Erie. Two months later, he was back in Pittsburgh. “I tried to work there, but I thought it was almost like Somalia. I didn’t want to be there. Nobody cares. Nobody wants to do anything with us there,” he says.
In Erie, he saw more people struggling. “In Pittsburgh, they can find a job during the summertime. And people at the schools make a community to look out for them,” he says.
That community is starting to pave the way to food sovereignty for one of the region’s most food-insecure refugee populations.
The land for the farm is provided to the Somali community by the City of Pittsburgh’s Adopt-A-Lot program, which offers free agricultural space to transform otherwise vacant land. Volunteers produce food for a nearby church, a small farmstand and community elders.
“I feel like a very rich person to get to do this and use these tools. In my mind, I go back 30 years and think about what I could have done if I had the tools,” says Ula Muya, who moved to Pittsburgh last year after first being resettled in Rochester in 2008.
Muya spent some time in Arizona with extended family, but, in what could be a first for the city, moved to Pittsburgh for the weather.
“I went there, and it was too hot. So I wanted to choose somewhere with better weather.”
The Somali refugee population is almost entirely Bantu, a compilation of several ethnic groups with roots in East Africa — primarily Mozambique, Tanzania and Malawi. In the 19th century, slave traders brought Bantu to Somalia, where they lived in the southern part of the country, first as enslaved people and, after liberation, compelled into an agrarian lifestyle by native Somalis and the Italian colonial government, which ruled the country from the late-1890s to 1941. In the 1990s, the persecuted Bantu minority was forced to flee, mainly by walking to Kenya, where they lived in refugee camps. In 2000, the United States began to allow the resettlement of Somali-Bantu, with Minneapolis/St. Paul, Seattle and Columbus, Ohio, as the primary points of resettlement.
Chirambo says that while Pittsburgh isn’t a major destination for Somali refugees, it’s showing its mettle as a welcoming one. “You have support for what you’re trying to do if you need knowledge or training, or if you need help understanding the rules. That’s all available here,” he says.
That includes food safety training — Chirambo’s goal this winter is for him and others to pass the tests needed to acquire a permit to sell at CityParks farmers markets. Prior to opening the farm, Chirambo says some of the community worked at a local farm to learn how to grow crops such as carrots, onions and potatoes that aren’t typically a part of the Bantu farming culture.
Chirambo says while the community can grow certain foods such as hot peppers and hearty greens that are common in a Bantu diet, spices such as ginger, turmeric, cumin and fenugreek have to be purchased. They’re not as good as they are at home, but Chirambo says they are making do. They’re growing corn on the farm, but not nearly enough to feed a population where dried corn is the foundational starch (alongside spaghetti, also a typical dish following almost 60 years of Italian occupation of the country).
Despite the early impact of the farm, food security remains an issue for the Bantu community. “We are still struggling with shopping. Having a sense of place for people is very important, and we don’t have one to share for our culture or the other African cultures in Pittsburgh,” says Chirambo, noting that there are people from more than 20 African countries living in the city.
“One of the challenges they have is they live somewhere in a place that you could call a food desert. No matter what route they make, they need to either have a car or public transportation. And with public transportation, you can only transport so much,” says Michelle Sandidge, Chief Community Affairs Officer of the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh.
To help mitigate the situation, Sandidge, in 2015, began partnering with the hunger-relief nonprofit 412 Food Rescue to send regular deliveries to locations easily accessible to Somali refugees. There’s a mix of ingredients that might already be known to a Somali cook, and others that take some getting used to. “They say over and over again, if it’s edible, we’ll figure out a way to cook with it,” says Sandidge.
Chirambo says that having a local market will help the spirit of the community. “A central spot will let us all share our cultures. It’s a welcoming city right now, but this is the next step to being an even more welcoming city. You can learn from your neighbor, and they can learn from you,” he says.
He’s in the process of learning from his neighbors. Earlier in the month, he visited a Brentwood market run by members of the Bhutanese community and noticed some elders enraptured in a card game. “The cards were the same, but the games were very different,” he says.
Back on the farm, Chirambo says that he’s already drawn up a plan for next year. “This year, we never got the chance to have cabbage and cauliflower. Same with honeydew and cantaloupe. We’re still figuring out how to deal with bugs. But we are learning,” he says.
It helps that the City of Pittsburgh has taken initiatives to include refugees and immigrants in its mix. “You don’t have to run. You don’t have to hide. This is your home. A welcoming city puts things in place to make it so you stop feeling like a visitor,” says Feyisola Akintola of Welcoming Pittsburgh, an immigration initiative launched by the Peduto administration.
Over three Friday evenings in September, Welcoming Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership organized “World Square” in Market Square, the most significant event to date to showcase Pittsburgh’s international population, including its various refugee communities. Among the artists, performers, small business owners and cooks was Uzunoglu, the Turkish refugee who has started Kardelens Catering Services with Seda Ozel, a friend with a similar story. She’s cooking gözleme, flatbreads stuffed with spinach and feta or lamb, over a propane-fired baking stone. “This is something that eases my homesickness. It’s something from my country that I’m sharing with people here,” she says.
On the other side of the square, a crowd gatherers around the stage, where a young Bhutanese Pittsburgher is demonstrating a dance from her country. Among the crowd is a teen dressed in traditional African Islamic garb, dancing to the music while taking a video on her smartphone.
“This is a city that was built by immigrants. And that’s something we should keep in mind moving forward. If we want this city to continue to grow and blossom, then we need to embrace all people, regardless of race, religion or what language you speak,” says Akintola.