Many cultures, one table: Thanksgiving dinner with refugee chefs and families

Breaking bread at the International Rescue Committee fundraiser to bridge barriers in community

Story and slideshow by DANNY O’MALLEY

The International Rescue Committee hosted Breaking Bread, a pre-holiday feast on November 15, 2017, to bring the greater Salt Lake City community closer together. Guests enjoyed cuisine prepared by chefs with the Spice Kitchen Incubator, a program that helps refugees launch food-service businesses. The Breaking Bread event was held at This Is The Place Heritage Park and drew nearly 250 attendees including refugee families in the community.

Upon arriving, guests were greeted by volunteers who guided them to one of dozens of tables in the high-ceilinged room. A 10-foot tall curved chalkboard wall stood near the podium, covered in decorative art and Polaroid photographs filling the shape of Utah. A flowery inscription reading “This is the place we all call home” emblazoned the top.

An elaborate video setup occupied a side room, where guests recorded live greetings to welcome newcomers to Salt Lake City. Guests and volunteers flowed around the central seating, filling the mountain lodge-style space with a cheerful buzz of conversation between old friends and new acquaintances.

At the bar, local startup Kiitos Brewing donated a selection of beer from its new lineup. The craft beer operation is a newcomer to the Utah brewery scene, but already setting itself apart as a leader in sustainable business and local collaboration. Natalie El-Deiry, deputy director of IRC, said Kiitos donates spent grain from the brewing process to the East African Refugee Goat Farm, a project benefiting refugee farmers on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley. The brewery is located in the Granary District south of downtown, and celebrated its grand opening to the public over the weekend of December 1, 2017.

Food from four entrepreneurs took center stage at the feast.

For appetizers, guests enjoyed Mediterranean and Middle Eastern fare, courtesy of two sisters. Suha and Mayada run Olives & Thyme together. Originally from Baghdad, they arrived in Utah in 2012 and started cooking with the Spice Kitchen Incubator in 2015. “Americans like to try new things, but there is nothing like what we make — they don’t know Arabic food here,” Mayada said.

The sisters spent hours in the Spice Kitchen the day before the event, rolling dough and wrapping it around spinach and cheese. Savory pastries, falafel sliders and small rice and beef bites called “kubbah” filled guests’ platters during the pre-dinner mingling. The hors d’oeuvres proved too scrumptious to remain for long — the sizeable serving trays were stripped clean by the time dinner was served.

The entree course was served family-style in huge bowls and deep dishes. Each table was assigned a different cuisine — Burmese or Somali.

Haymar, originally from Burma, runs Januhongsar as her catering endeavor, as well as a specialty grocery store called Sonjhae Asian Market. Haymar has lived in Utah since 2008, and has been with Spice Kitchen since in late 2012. For the dinner, she served a chicken and kabocha squash curry with mixed seasonal vegetables over rice. The seasonal squash tasted like a tender semi-sweet pumpkin, and lent a vibrant orange glow to the plate like a late fall sunrise. Haymar’s mouth-watering dishes can be found often through the rotating Spice Kitchen To Go ordering on Facebook.

Najati, from Somalia, lived in the refugee camps in Kenya before coming to Utah in 2008. She learned Swahili recipes cooking with her mother in the camps. “There were no fresh vegetables, but here there is regional organic food I cook with,” she said. Najati dubbed her catering business Namash Swahili Cuisine, and wants to open a food truck or a restaurant someday. “I am used to cooking for 400 or so people. This event I only have maybe 100, much easier.” For the dinner, she served roasted goat from the IRC goat farm, and vegetable curry over Somali-spiced rice with a hot sauce known as “pilipili.”

To top it all off, the dessert course was capped with an intricately-designed cake featuring the event logo, thanks to M Bakeshop. Michaela started M Bakeshop with Spice Kitchen in early 2017, but has been baking her entire life. “I always loved to lick the bowl, ever since I was young. I could live off sweets,” she said. Born in Austria, she has lived in the U.S. since 1986 and Utah since 1995. In the last two years she has started to experiment with a different process that she calls “inside-out cake,” allowing her to bake delicate hand-drawn designs into her cakes. Because of her precision and care on each piece, Spice Kitchen approached her to add an upscale dessert to the event. “I love seeing the reaction of people to my creations,” she said.

Patrick Poulin, executive director of IRC Salt Lake, welcomed attendees and spoke about the importance of sharing cultures between community members.

Natalie El-Deiry presented awards to local groups that were integral in their contribution to the refugee community. One of the awards went to St. Mark’s Family Medicine for its work on the VeggieRx program, a pilot to help refugees address critical nutrition needs.

This is the second year of the Breaking Bread event. Proceeds from ticket sales, as well as additional in-person donations, will help the IRC continue its work and promote new opportunities for refugees. As the Spice Kitchen Incubator continues to aid more local entrepreneurs ply their palate-pleasing trade, the event is sure to grow. Details about next year’s event, as well as the chance to purchase advance tickets, will be available on the IRC’s website or the Facebook page.

“We need to paint a picture of refugee contributions to the community,” said Natalie el-Deiry in a previous interview. This event is just one part of that picture, growing a closer, stronger community through sharing a table and enjoying a meal together.

Fresh starts and fiscal success: refugee businesses are booming in Salt Lake City

Story and graphics by DANNY O’MALLEY

Refugees are opening new businesses and bringing new solutions to Salt Lake City, thanks largely to the International Rescue Committee and other local organizations that coordinate resettlement.

“The refugee and immigrant community has a higher rate of entrepreneurship than natural-born citizens,” said Natalie El-Deiry, deputy director of development and strategic initiatives at the International Rescue Committee office in Salt Lake City.


Her eyes light up when talking about the growth she has seen. While no one may be able to quantify the exact figures, she estimates that dozens of businesses owned and operated by refugees have opened since 2012.  “They’re a thread that weaves through the community and brings us closer together,” she said.

Immigrant-owned businesses in Utah employed over 31,000 people in 2007, according to a report from the Partnership for a New American Economy. Another NAE report shows that refugees and immigrants brought an estimated $56.3 billion of spending power to the national economy in 2015. They paid $20.9 billion in taxes.

Such colossal numbers also serve as a bittersweet reminder of greater struggles.


The global number of forcibly displaced people is over 65 million, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency. Refugees comprise nearly one-third of that number. On average, Utah takes in around 1,200 refugees per year through the two primary resettlement organizations: the International Rescue Committee and Catholic Community Services.

Aden Batar, director of immigration and refugee resettlement at Catholic Community Services, reports that the final fiscal quarter of 2017 brought less than half of the people expected.

“We take a capacity survey every year, and report that we can handle a certain number of cases. We only got 20 [assigned] for September. It’s normally more than 50,” he said. Utah is unlikely to receive any more refugees in 2017, although the groups within the state could help resettle many dozens more. The current administration is apathetic, the New York Times reported, to fixing the global humanitarian crisis through open doors. That story pointed out that the economic contributions of refugees were apparently censored by White House officials. The released document excluded anything but the cost burden presented by initial resettlement and government assistance. The White House is ignoring billions of dollars of income tax, discretionary spending and wages paid to employees by refugee business owners.

Fewer refugees means that fewer opportunities for integration of new ideas — not to mention potential jobs and workers — will arrive in the near future.

Batar said that about 85 percent of the refugees CCS works with are self-sufficient within six months, and generally start contributing to the local economy immediately. A report from the National Bureau of Economic Research estimates that refugees have higher employment rates than native-born citizens once they have lived in the U.S. for several years.

But as much as refugees want to work, they must be welcomed into a community to do so.

Batar, a Somalian refugee himself, is unwavering about this global plight of humanity. “It is the hardest thing a human being can ever do,” he said, referring to the journeys undertaken by refugees. “When you don’t have a choice, it doesn’t matter where you’re going, as long as it’s a peaceful place,” he said, his voice firm and insistent.

“Someone may come with a myth in their mind of the United States providing everything,” he said, so instilling new concepts like paying bills and making rent on time can take some adjustment. Programs such as those offered by the International Rescue Committee, Catholic Community Services and their partners are crucial for stability, smooth transitions and the livelihood of the community overall. Thanks to local initiatives, volunteer outreach and business incubators, refugees can start to lay a foundation for future success.

The Spice Kitchen Incubator has provided a hands-on educational workspace since 2012 to launch food service businesses. Refugees and underprivileged people prepare and profit from their native cuisines in a new place. With over 30 businesses introduced to the greater Salt Lake City region, including a baker’s dozen just since 2016, the results are unmistakably successful.

Ze Min Xiao, director of the Office of New Americans in Salt Lake County, has hope that the successes outweigh the challenges for the refugee population and the groups serving them. “Utah is doing relatively well compared to other parts of the country when it comes to refugee integration, but the situation always has room for improvement,” she said in a phone interview. “We’ve recognized the need to ensure groundwork is laid down early for long-term opportunities,” including mentoring and business resources for immigrant and refugee entrepreneurs.

“Government agencies can’t do everything,” she said. “My office right now is just me and a temp. But we are convening outside stakeholders and bringing a vision together.” Those outside stakeholders include businesses employing or founded by many of the refugees in Salt Lake City. The chance to work with new arrivals every year demands big-picture thinking, as evidenced by the New Americans Task Force Welcoming Plan.

The community has a lot to give to refugees. But refugees have even more to give back, whether it’s tax dollars or cultural diversity. They just need a safe place like Salt Lake City to start.



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