Recent events have highlighted the need for an understanding of the situation facing refugees throughout the world. Refugees, unlike economic migrants, are forced to leave their countries of origin or are driven out by violence or persecution. As these individuals and their families struggle to adapt to a new culture, the kitchen often becomes one of the few places where they are able to return “home.” Preparing native cuisine is one way they can find comfort in an unfamiliar land, retain their customs, reconnect with their past, and preserve a sense of identity.
In Flavors from Home: Refugees in Kentucky Share Their Stories and Comfort Foods, author Aimee Zaring uses her many years of expertise working with refugees in the Commonwealth to explore their everyday life, the situations that brought them here, and the food that connects them to home. Zaring shares personal and dramatic accounts of their fight for their lives, as well as heartwarming and fascinating stories of their transition to living in America. Zaring also illustrates the importance of understanding the persecution and struggle that these refugees have gone through and the ability of food to provide a sense of home for them when home is lost.
In order to foster a discussion about the lives of refugees in Kentucky and throughout the country, we’re sharing the following conversation with Aimee Zaring, author of Flavors from Home:
What first interested you to write Flavors from Home and how did that interest help to shape the finished book?
For many years, I taught ESL (English as a Second Language) to elder refugees, and we held occasional potlucks where students could share dishes from their homelands. Something magical happened at those potluck dinners. Usually at snack time, the students from each ethnic group would sit together at the same table—but not during potluck days. I was always filled with awe when I looked around the room and saw people from all over the world coming together around food. And I loved seeing how the elders seemed to become kids again as they stood proudly by their dishes and encouraged everyone to “Eat, eat!”
It occurred to me that someone should collect all these delicious recipes before they became altered or “Americanized.” As I began talking to the refugees about their favorite foods, I was reminded that food is never just food; there are always stories and strong memories associated with it. I realized that leaving out the refugees’ stories would be like leaving out the indispensable saffron in the Persian dish tachin. So I decided to make food the unifying element, linking all the stories, just as food in general unifies all of humankind. It’s one of the few things we all share in common.
Describe the circumstances that led a few of the people you interviewed to seek refuge in the United States.
All refugees are immigrants, but not all immigrants are refugees. Refugees flee their home countries out of fear or necessity because of persecution or violence. They usually cannot safely return to their homelands. Economic migrants, on the other hand, choose to leave their home countries to improve their lives, especially to better their economic conditions, and can generally return home when and if they choose.
As one can imagine, war is almost always the culprit. Nearly all the refugees I interviewed for Flavors from Home were driven out by the trickle-down upheaval and chaos resulting from war, military dictatorships, or political uprisings. The first refugee featured in the book came to America as a young girl with her family after the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Several refugees in the book are from Myanmar (Burma) and were persecuted for their religious or political beliefs by the country’s longstanding military junta. Two refugees in the book are from Bhutan, the country often referred to as “the happiest in the world,” yet their specific ethnic group (comprised mainly of Hindus) made them a target in the small Buddhist-dominated kingdom. The last chapter in the book features one of my former students, a political activist who spent over two decades of his life in jails because of his enduring fight to defend human rights.
The kitchen is home for Huong “CoCo” Tran at her Heart & Soy restaurant. (Photo by Julie Johnston)
Which of their stories did you find most uplifting?
Every one of these stories was deeply moving and affected me in a profound way. Sometimes I was moved by the sheer horror of what the individuals had seen or suffered through, for example Nicolas Kiza from Rwanda, who as a young boy traversed the entire Democratic Republic of the Congo by foot, trying to outrun the Rwandan Genocide, because, as he told me, “I’d rather be killed by a lion than my fellow Rwandans.” Sometimes I was moved by the refugees’ fierce determination and strong work ethic and how much they’ve accomplished in the United States with minimal assistance, often knowing little to no English. Huong “CoCo” Tran comes to mind. CoCo spent thirty days at sea after the fall of Saigon. She is now one of Louisville’s most inventive and successful restauranteurs.
Can you explain why some ended up in Kentucky, as opposed to another state?
Kentucky has several official refugee resettlement agencies, including Catholic Charities, Kentucky Refugee Ministries, the International Center of Kentucky, among others, which have been offering services to refugees for decades. Because we have a long tradition of hosting refugees and consequently have refugee populations already established in the area, resettlement agencies will often try to place refugees where they already have family and a built-in support system. The majority of refugees in Kentucky are resettled in Louisville, which has a lot going for it—a relatively low cost of living, good schools, ample job opportunities, a vibrant international community, and a current local government that by and large supports cultural diversity.
What makes food a more tangible connection for some than other aspects of their heritage?
For most refugees, food equals refuge. It offers a safe haven in a strange land filled with foreign customs. Though refugees must adapt to American ways to increase their chances of success (including the formidable task of learning a new language), nothing dictates that they must give up their native foods. Because of the widespread availability of international ingredients—through ethnic groceries, native produce grown in individual or communal gardens, and online shopping—there is no compelling reason to alter their dishes and culinary customs. Cooking and eating is a multi-sensory experience, evoking all sorts of memories and emotions. It’s the easiest and cheapest direct flight back home.
What do you hope Flavors from Home accomplishes, and what do you believe will resonate most with the audience while reading this book?
I hope Flavors from Home will serve as a launching point for dialogue between people from diverse backgrounds who might not otherwise have a reason or opportunity to communicate with each other. Food is something we all share in common and can enjoy together, and often no words are necessary. Food is its own language and can transcend barriers. I’ve seen time and again the goodwill that a fine meal can foster.
I hope, too, that the book will help educate readers on the many different cultures and ethnic groups that have been added to America’s melting pot over the past half-century. And I hope the stories will inspire people to persevere, even when all hope seems lost. Native-born Americans will no doubt walk away from these stories with a greater appreciation of our great nation, especially after viewing it fresh through the eyes of refugees. Yes, there’s a lot that’s wrong with our country, but there is also a lot that’s right, and refugees remind us to never take for granted our most basic freedoms. And, of course, I want people to try these delectable dishes and perhaps even discover, as did I, a whole new world of comfort foods.
Aimee Zaring lives in Louisville, Kentucky where, for more than five years, she has taught ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) at Catholic Charities, Kentucky Refugee Ministries, Global LT, and Jefferson County Public Schools.
To learn more about her book, Flavors from Home, visit our website.