In a primary season with sharp language around immigration, two articles beg to be read widely. Both feature programs that use the shared experience of food to strengthen the bond between immigrants to their new hometowns.
The first article profiles Hot Bread Kitchen, a top-shelf bakery committed to producing high-quality loaves of all kinds. The brainchild of New York baker Jessamyn Waldman-Rodriguez, Hot Bread Kitchen employs recent immigrants and trains them in all aspects of the bakery: from making dough from scratch to pulling fresh-baked loaves out of the oven at the perfect time. Not only do their breads sell to some of the fanciest restaurants and shops in the city, all of their bakers are placed in full-time positions after completing training.
Two hours south by train from New York sits Edible Alphabet, a project under the care of the Free Library of Philadelphia and in partnership with Nationalities Service Center. This program offers a new twist on English language training by blending language acquisition with cooking. Ingredients are the vocabulary lesson and each class ends with a shared meal. NPR recently showcased some examples of dishes, all designed for affordability and the varied tastes of Philadelphians, wherever they come from.
Baking—and breaking—bread together is a form of welcome. Given the less charitable sentiments that keep surfacing in the bluster of the primary season, I pledge allegiance to programs like Hot Bread Kitchen and Edible Alphabet who happily celebrate many flags.
The lively city of Antakya is nestled in a valley formed by the Nur Mountains, only 14 miles from the Mediterranean Sea in the southernmost tip of Turkey. Last month, as my plane banked and shuddered through the updrafts for a safe landing at the Hatay airport, I was mesmerized by the stunning natural beauty of the region. Green-carpeted mountainsides and sweeping deep blue skies greeted me as I poked my head out of the plane into the fresh air. It was hard to believe that 12 miles away in Syria was, and is, a war zone.
I traveled to Antakya to deliver a three-day humanitarian communications training for GOAL SYRIA, a country office of GOAL, the Irish international development organization headquartered in Dublin.
For safety reasons, the GOAL SYRIA office operates out of Turkey, with Syrian nationals on staff crossing the border regularly to deliver aid and manage rebuilding programs. GOAL SYRIA is currently one of GOAL’s largest operations, given that the war has displaced almost 8 million Syrians internally and sent another 3 million across country borders seeking refuge. While the scale of human suffering is hard to fathom, GOAL CEO Barry Andrews gave it a good try at TEDxUCD in Dublin last June.
The plan was to have all Syria-based staff join my training in Turkey. However, the Turkish government closed the border a week before I arrived so more than half of the participants had no choice but to use the online platform Blackboard Learn in an environment with already fragile Internet connectivity. On top of that, two of the cities where the majority of the Syrian-based participants live were bombed the night after our first day of the training.
One participant named Walid Almawas was particularly determined. He managed to log onto the online platform and follow along with the entire training, regularly typing thoughtful comments and questions in the chat box. On the second day of the training, when it was time for the participants to head out into the glorious sunshine for a story photo shoot, his question to me in the chat box shook me to my senses. While Walid was geographically as close as the crow flies, his situation was worlds away from mine.
How can I complete this assignment, Anita? It is not safe to go outdoors.
I thought fast and typed faster.
Walid, you don’t have to go outside to tell a story. I bet there’s a story you can tell inside your home.
He answered immediately.
My wife is making breakfast. Do you mean I could tell a story about that?
When we think of humanitarian agencies, we often think about them as being in the business of providing things–tents, water, blankets, and food. GOAL recognizes that providing stories such as Walid’s is important, too, and that those stories must be told. War zones, disease outbreaks and natural disasters can quickly turn humans into abstractions and statistics. Humanitarian communications is about ethically documenting stories within communities that showcase resilience and optimism in the face of unspeakable sorrow and staggering perseverance. Or just the simple fact that life continues amidst atrocities, and in the morning you make breakfast for those you love.
Relief agencies like GOAL are intentionally non-partisan, yet they do bear witness to the events that unfold around them. The stories that they capture and share at a grassroots level become part of the country’s collective memory. And we all know that compelling stories from the field inspire vital donations. But, perhaps most importantly, GOAL communications share stories in a way that preserves the dignity of those involved and reminds us of what we all have in common. Instantly. Everywhere.
Walid sent me his photo essay that evening. His wife preparing food at the stove. A second photo of his 3-year-old son in front of a tray of food. His infant son in a highchair. A self-portrait.
In a war zone, the ritual of breakfast at home with your family is more than just an act of love. It’s hope.