New American Dish
September 8th, 2016
Omaha is home to thousands of people who’ve fled war-torn regions. The Refugee Empowerment Center is partnering with two Omaha restaurants to shed light on the issue, by appealing to your appetite.
In her central Omaha home, wearing an embroidered blue burka Geila Hassan prepares geema, a traditional Sudanese beef stew; potatoes, beef, onion, and a whole host of other spices.
When the geema is ready, Hassan tells me to sit down so we can share a meal together.
Hassan came to Omaha from Western Sudan a few years ago, but not before spending time in some refugee camps along the way.
Hassan takes English classes for two hours every day, Monday thru Friday. It will be the third language she learns.
She wanted to be sure I understand her, so she asked her son, Abdullah to translate for us.
Abdullah just arrived in Omaha a few months ago. He was forced to live in a Refugee camp in Egypt apart from his family. When we sat down to talk, he was wearing a brightly colored t-shirt; the letters U-S-A emblazoned across the front.
With Abdullah’s help, I asked his mother about the importance of sharing a meal in Sudanese culture. Spoiler alert: It means quite a bit.
“In our culture, it’s very important for us, the Sudanese people, to be very kind and very lovely.” Abdullah translated. “We try to know each other and feel like anyone you have related with, you have to be like he is your brother and act like that. You have to be accountable to talk and to speak with him and share information about his life and your life.”
Hassan’s geema, and the story of how she came to Omaha—is at the centerpiece of New American Dish, a first of its kind event in Omaha and organized by The Refugee Empowerment Center, along with the chefs from Block 16 and Kitchen Table. The group is working with Hassan and one other New American woman to prepare dishes inspired by their homeland.
For the next week, Block 16 will feature a dish inspired by Hassan’s geema. Kitchen Table will feature a Burmese style curry.
Colin Duggan, chef and co-owner of Kitchen Table, worked with a woman who fled the Burmese/Thai conflict, one of the longest running civil wars in modern history. He said food is something we all need, so it’s natural it would bring people together.
“[Food] is a requirement for life,” he said. “Over the course of history, it hasn’t always been readily available and we’ve had to work together to get it. [Food] is just kind of a natural gathering point.
Serena Adlerstein works with the Refugee Empowerment Center, which is organizing New American Dish.
“There are several goal for New American Dish, one is raising awareness about the different refugee communities living here in Omaha,” Adlerstein said.
Numbers fluctuate, but Adlerstein said there are between 40-50,000 refugees living in Nebraska. That includes people from Burma/Myanmar, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, China, and more. Also, Adlerstein said we shouldn’t use the term “refugees” anymore.
“We try to use the term ‘New American’,” Adlerstein said, “Refugee is a very disempowering word. They’re New Americans. They came to this country for many of the same reasons that many of our families did two, four, seven, twelve generations ago did; for economic and social security.”
During the week-long New American Dish event, Block 16 and the Kitchen Table are donating a portion of their sales to the New American Women’s Alliance.
Along with an order of the geema or curry, diners will also receive information about the conflict torn regions where the dishes are from, including information about the women who helped the restaurants develop the dish.
Jessica Duggan owns the Kitchen Table with her husband, Colin.
She said, “Inclusivity is really important to us. One of core values is to make sure everyone can have something good to eat and you’re not having to walk away feeling like you settled for something. This kind of felt like a natural fit with wanting to help promote refugee inclusivity in Omaha and raising people’s awareness that there are other folks that are new to the area and we need to all be welcoming and encourage the growth.”
And as all good foodies know, any Burmese-style curry worth its weight in kyat contains fish paste. Don’t worry. Colin has that covered.
For their curry, Kitchen Table will feature a fermented steel-head trout fish paste. It’s salted, dried, fermented, and then ground.
Back in Geila Hassan’s kitchen, Geila insists I take a second portion of geema—which I was obliged to do.
I asked her to describe how she feels about her role in New American Dish. Her son Abdullah translated her answer.
He told me she said she hopes her “food will be good for them and they love it”.
She also said she’s glad people will learn about her story, and the conflict which forced her family to flee.
When I asked Abdullah how he feels knowing his mother is helping to raise awareness, his smile filled the room as he said “She’s got the courage to do that, and I’m so happy for her.”
Because what son wouldn’t be?
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