When Taghreed Ibrahim juices a lemon, its tangy scent transports her from the cramped galley kitchen in her Kent apartment back to Iraq, age 5, making lemon and cardamom Shakar Lama cookies with her mom in an airy villa built by her dad, a carpenter like his father before him.
Oh, the softness of flour mixed with butter and her mother’s voice; the sweet anticipation of relatives gathering. For generations they lived in Dhi Qar province, southern Iraq, heartland of ancient Sumerian civilization. Every day, before high heat, ladies with baskets of fish on their heads would walk house to house peddling catch pulled from the Euphrates River.
It was 1982, before the Iran-Iraq War ended, before Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party strengthened its hold in the south forcing Ibrahim’s family to flee to Baghdad. By 2006, when Ibrahim was 31, Baghdad, too, became unbearable: no electricity, unrelenting 122-degree heat, dozens of dead bodies in the streets every night.
Ibrahim had married a college classmate, Mohammed Ismail, a graphic designer who worked with a U.S.-backed television station. One by one, his journalist friends were killed—then bullets hit his car. Colleagues said something about ISIS. In fear, Ibrahim’s family hid in different houses until her husband was transferred to Dubai. Ibrahim and their young son sought refuge with an aunt in Egypt, then went to Dubai when their visas came through.
Oddly, it was in air-conditioned Dubai, safe from Baghdad’s snipers and suicide bombers, that depression hit. Ibrahim was lonely, home all day with the couple’s two small sons while her husband worked past midnight. “I missed my mom so much,” Ibrahim says. She tried medicine, herbs and meditation but was still unable to sleep. “My mom told me: ‘Do what you love!’” So late into the night, Ibrahim baked hundreds of cookies. “I have this amazing feeling when I put something in the oven,” she says, “The smells: cardamom, rose water, orange blossom. Makes me feel like home.”
I met Ibrahim at Tukwila Community Center during a summer cooking demo by Project Feast, a nonprofit that provides commercial kitchen training and pathways for refugees to find sustainable employment in the food industry. Crisp and professional in signature black-and-white aprons, five refugee cooks led us through the intricacies of preparing pico de gallo with fresh lime juice, deep red borscht, jollof rice with chicken, beef tibs redolent with Berbere spice; znoud el sitt—a flaky, cream-filled pastry swooning with rosewater. It was one of the most diverse and delicious meals of my life.
The cooks hailed from Mexico, Ukraine, Ghana, Eritrea and Iraq, their backstories as complex as the dishes they shared. One woman, who fled war in Eritrea, learned to make the spicy stew over a wood fire at age nine. Another, Inna Stetsenko, ran a family restaurant in Donetsk that was lost when the city spiraled into lawlessness.
Last year, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees counted 60 million people uprooted from their countries by persecution, war or violence—the most ever in the history of human migration. Of those, 70,000 landed in America, including nearly 3,000 in Washington state. Clutching documents, clinging to dignity, they struggle with language, rent, finding a job. Most everything that matters has been ripped away—homeland, culture, social network—yet they retain their recipes.
“Food is a natural strength, especially for women coming in from other countries,” says executive director Veena Prasad, an energetic social entrepreneur with an MBA and baby twins, who founded Project Feast in 2013. “How can we use their strengths to help them get a job, stay in that job, grow and work toward their dreams?”
In King County, one in five residents was born in another country and about half of that population has low-English skills, limiting their chances at a living-wage job. How to leverage rich traditions instead of treating refugees as an economic burden? How to tap a culinary mother lode in a region of foodies hungry for the next new taste trend?
Project Feast started with food handler permits and catering. Goat curry, bone-in, cooked by a refugee from Myanmar via Malaysia. “It was really authentic,” Prasad laughs. The client loved it.
Then came refugee-taught cooking classes, a Fast Pitch grant from Social Venture Partners, a Women’s Funding Alliance award, a six-week training program in commercial kitchen basics that’s free for qualifying refugees and low-income immigrants. They learn knife skills, plating and presentation, safe food handling, how to interview. Each trainee writes her own recipe and teaches it to classmates. At graduation, each student presents her dish and makes a small speech. Many cry.
“It changed my whole life,” says Ibrahim, who arrived in the U.S. in 2013. “I told Veena I was like a broken woman because of what we’ve been through, country to country. Family issues, dramatic issues, all this makes me lost. But I found myself through Project Feast. I trust myself I can do everything. Before, I don’t have this confidence at all. She makes me a stronger woman—like American woman.”
Prasad, who left the corporate world because she wanted to do instead of plan, has dozens of ideas to scale up the program that now serves about 100 refugees. Project Feast could cater employee lunches, start a food truck, start a restaurant, create a line of global gourmet sauces, provide a pipeline of workers for restaurants, sponsor reverse training where area chefs learn authentic ethnic recipes from Project Feast graduates and reciprocate by guest chef-ing fundraisers and classes.
She dreams of working with newly arrived refugees who have even fewer English skills and more barriers. And she yearns to add training space closer to where refugees live, so they don’t have to spend an hour on two buses to reach the Tukwila site.
Most of all, Prasad wants Project Feast to bring more people to the table, using savory eggplant and crushed spices to span culture and socio-economic class. “Food is a powerful way of igniting conversation,” she says. “I can imagine that when people sample delicious Iraqi food, they might pay more attention when they hear about that country in the news.”
Ibrahim graciously invited me to lunch in her Kent apartment to talk about her experience with Project Feast. Typical American, I expected soup and maybe a side salad. After three hours slicing, grating, simmering and baking, lunch is almost ready.
Tabouli salad bursting with fresh parsley and bulgur; meltingly tender chard-wrapped dolmas; kubbat halab dumplings with golden turmeric and raisin-spiced meat. A floor fan swirls the warm aroma of cardamom, cumin, cinnamon, bay leaves, black pepper and allspice—exactly the same spice mix perfuming her mom’s kitchen in Baghdad.
The ingredients for authentic Arabic cooking were not hard to source: DK Market warehouse in Renton and the potted herbs on Ibrahim’s small balcony. It’s been much harder to procure other basics she took for granted in Iraq, especially an extended family to watch her kids.
Ibrahim and her husband are better off than other refugees (many who teeter on the brink of homelessness) because Ismail works as a graphic designer at a local TV station. But childcare is still prohibitively expensive, and she doesn’t feel safe leaving her boys unattended. Working families, childcare challenges: Welcome to America.
She expertly dices a tomato, slicing vertically and horizontally, knife skills honed from cubing hundreds of pounds of potatoes for Chicken Soup Brigade, which has flexed hours around her sons’ school schedules. Ibrahim loves the apprenticeship, even though it means rising at 4 a.m. to take the bus to downtown Seattle. She dreams of working at Macrina Bakery, becoming a pastry chef, bringing her parents from Baghdad.
Two weeks before our lunch, a car bomb blew out all the windows in her parents’ house; they weren’t wounded, but the pressure wave sickened her dad for a few days. A few weeks later, bombs exploded in two crowded Baghdad markets, killing 26, wounding 58, but not her parents. “Thanks to God,” Ibrahim says. “They’ve been so lucky.”
She unmolds a stunning upside-down maqluba studded with caramelized onions, eggplant and creamy fava beans and sets it beside a basbousa sweetened with orange flower water. She’s cooked an eight-course lunch, enough for 30 people. It smells achingly delicious, a table full of food but empty of the family she longs for.
Is it usual to make so much for lunch?
“For guests? Of course,” Ibrahim says. “It is how you show your love.”
PROJECT FEAST FACTS
Founded in 2013.
To empower the lives of refugee and immigrant women.
More than 150 people from 15 countries have been trained; more than 300 people have attended cooking classes.
Iraqi, Somali, Burmese, Eritrean, Filipino, Vietnamese, Ethiopian and Mexican.