Last Saturday I went to see Dalia Mortada, a Syrian-American journalist, talk about the work she’s been doing with Syrian refugees over the last couple of years. Mortada came to Turkey in 2011 with plans to move to her family’s native Damascus and was thrown off course when the civil war started; she’s been in Istanbul ever since. In her words, Mortada is unable to write about the war in Syria itself, so instead she has focused on telling the stories of the people displaced by the war through the lens of food. Her project Savoring Syria was born, and she has traveled to several different countries to spend time with refugees, share meals together, and keep traditional Syrian recipes alive.
It was a great talk, with a great discussion afterward. There are anywhere from 500,000-1.5 million Syrian refugees living just in Istanbul, but integration hasn’t been a priority and the refugee community mostly exists separate from the rest of us who live here. It’s an odd feeling to be in the midst of a humanitarian crisis and yet still know so little about it on a personal level.
While I was listening to Mortada speak, two things really stuck out to me. The first was when she talked about how the Syrian refugees living in camps in countries like Turkey and Greece not only missed the ability to cook, but had difficulty adjusting to not having the foods and ingredients they’re used to even when they can cook. How the vegetables and spices are different, how they don’t have access to the things they usually use when cooking. Even Mortada mentioned that she mourned the fact that she couldn’t find good pita bread in Istanbul, something that was a mainstay in her Syrian-American home growing up.
Anyone who hasn’t lived outside of their own culture cannot understand just how true this is. When I moved to Turkey, re-learning how to cook was the biggest challenge I faced– not culture shock, not the language barrier, not the social interactions. Just feeding myself. I was a vegetarian for years before coming to Turkey and everything I was used to eating– portabello mushrooms, spaghetti squash, tofu, black beans, seitan– wasn’t available here. There were no Mexican or Thai or Indian spices, no crock pots or microwaves. I literally could not cook anything that I really knew how to cook, and even navigating the grocery store was an immense challenge until I understood the language better.
It’s something that seems so small, but in reality is a huge part of daily life– we feed ourselves three times a day, after all–and having to completely change how we do it is daunting and frustrating. On top of that, we inevitably miss the things we can’t have. I miss chunky peanut butter every single day, and real Mexican food. When I go to the US to visit family, I spend as much time planning what I’m going to eat while I’m there as I do planning which friends I will see. Don’t get me wrong, Turkey has great food, and most of the time I’m happy to eat it. It’s just not home, not the things I grew up eating and taught myself how to cook.
And if I feel this way– the initial deep frustration at not having access to “my” food, the deep longing for tastes and textures I love– when I freely chose to move halfway across the world, what must people who have been displaced by war, who had no choice in leaving, feel?
The other thing that stuck with me was when Mortada described how the refugees she’s been in contact with are opening up restaurants all over the world– in Germany, in the United States, in Canada. And I thought to myself, Yes, this is how it goes. One of the things I absolutely love most about the US is the immense diversity of food available, and most of that is thanks to the large number of immigrants. In a mid-sized American city, you can easily go out for Vietnamese, Greek, Ethiopian, and Cuban food in one weekend and think nothing of it.
People seem to forget that virtually every big wave of immigrants or refugees has been feared and discriminated against at first. America is such a melting pot and now there are so many nationalities that we inherently consider “American-American,” like Germans or Irish or Italians, that each faced their own difficulties when the communities first came here. But eventually, it becomes normal and everything blends together, and no one even notices it anymore.
With the tragedy of the current humanitarian crisis, I’d like to have hope that one day, it will normalize and blend together; the cornerstones are being laid now as Syrians fan out into the world and take their food and their culture with them; one day, hopefully not too long from now, maybe we will all say, “Oh, let’s go to that Syrian place downtown” the same way we do with Italian or Mexican. History repeats itself, for better or for worse, but sharing food culture is one of the “for betters.”