At Atlanta Botanical Garden, refugees to make meals representing ‘home’

Cultural exchange can happen in many ways. Often the most accessible, and easily the most delicious, form is by sharing a meal.

There’s no lack of Atlanta restaurants where you can sample dishes from Thailand, say, or Ethiopia, but how often does the diner connect with the chef and learn not only what goes into a dish but why that dish is important in the chef’s culture?

Next weekend (June 23-24), the Atlanta Botanical Garden makes that conversation possible. The garden is hosting the Refugee Recipe Celebration with guest chefs from Syria, Burma, Ethiopia and Nigeria taking over the Edible Garden Outdoor Kitchen to prepare and serve dishes that represent "home" to them. It's a partnership between the garden and Clarkston-based Friends of Refugees.

"We knew about the Friends of Refugees' Jolly Avenue Garden, a space with garden plots where refugee families can grow food for themselves and their community. We were so impressed with how families are raising the foods they know from their homes," says Abby Gale, public programs manager for the Atlanta Botanical Garden.

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Conversation about growing food led to conversation about eating food, and that led to the Refugee Recipe Celebration. This is the second year.

“This is one way to tell the story of where these people are from, why they are here and what is unique to them,” says Erin Davenport, Friends of Refugees’ director of agriculture and nutrition. “It’s kind of a foot in the door to have future conversations.”

Gale says the event is also a way to highlight the Friends of Refugees’ mission of supporting refugees as entrepreneurs. For the most part, the chefs who will come are business owners, maybe with a restaurant or a catering company.

Syrian chef Majeda Nakshbandi and her son Malek Alarmash will make hummus and tabbouleh, offering two staples from their Clarkston-based catering business, Suryana Cuisine, established with the help of Friends of Refugees' entrepreneurship program. They arrived in Clarkston in 2016 and started Suryana Cuisine not long after.

“Sharing our food is how we share our traditions and culture. Friends of Refugees helped us start our business and still helps to spread the word about our service,” says Alarmash.

He makes it clear his mom is the chef while he runs the business side. During their demonstration, he’ll serve as his mom’s interpreter. “Last year, I was a little nervous, how to explain how to make these dishes. But it was fun. I loved it and everyone loved our food. And it is important to explain why we are here.”

Helping refugees tell their stories is a part of the mission for Friends of Refugees. “As much as we are about serving refugees, we are about educating folks about their stories and eradicating myths,” says Davenport. She’s found that Atlantans are interested in how others cook and why they cook, and how they show hospitality. And just as importantly, the refugees have appreciated the chance to visit this Atlanta institution.

“I remember last year we had a man from West Africa who has been here in Atlanta for 20 years and owns a juice business called We Belong Natural Foods. He told us, ‘There is a tree in the conservatory I have not seen since I was a little boy in Africa,’ and he had tears in his eyes. We are so grateful for the chance to share this wonderful resource with our Clarkston residents,” says Davenport.

The two-day celebration includes other activities such as seed planting, musical performances and activities for kids. “Last year, we posted a world map, then asked visitors to take a picture of themselves and put it on the map, running a string to the place where they were from,” says Davenport. “It made for the most amazing display of how we come from all over the globe.”


Refugee Recipe Celebration

10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday, June 23, and Sunday, June 24. Demos and tastings at 11 a.m., noon, 1 and 2 p.m. Free with garden admission, which is $21.95; children ages 3-12, $18.95; free for children younger than 3 and members. Atlanta Botanical Garden, 1345 Piedmont Ave. NE, Atlanta. 404-876-5859,