How a restaurant in Houston became the source of the first food for Afghan refugees in America – the Texas Monthly

On the morning of August 15, 2021, economist Mahmood Ebadi was sitting in his office at the Afghan Ministry of Economy in Kabul when a friend called. Go home quickly, said a friend. The government collapsed. Ebadi threw himself down a street crowded with tens of thousands of people and began to push home. He hid there for weeks, during which the bank holding his lifetime savings was closed until he managed to sell the car and buy tickets to Istanbul. With the help of a non-profit veterans’ organization, Ebadi, his wife, and their two-year-old daughter (as well as other Afghan refugees in this story, Ebadi asked that family names remain private) got to Houston.

Their first hours in the new land seemed like a nightmare. Ebadi’s toddler, raised in a three-story house full of grandparents and cousins, could not understand where they were. Then Ebadi peered into the new family refrigerator and saw a pile of boxes of pilau rice sprinkled with raisins and spicy pieces of lamb. “I did not expect that. But we liked it, “he says. His wife, exhausted by the lagoon, stared happily at the familiar food. “How,” she asked her husband, “is it possible?”

In a strange flourishing of bureaucratic hospitality, the US government requires all its official sponsors to provide every newcomer with some essentials: a greeting at the airport, short-term accommodation, and one “culturally appropriate” meal ready for direct consumption as soon as they reach their destination. a new home. In some cities, this meal may consist of roast chicken from a volunteer-paid grocery store or dinner cooked by a relative who already lives in the United States. But in Houston, where more than 3,000 Afghans have flocked since September, food from resettlement agencies probably includes freshly baked bread, basmati rice, and stewed lamb or chicken from an Afghan village in southwest Houston.

For the owners of the Omera Yousafzai restaurant, the soothing properties of Afghan food are a matter of course. Twenty years ago, Yousafzai was a refugee in Houston. In fact, his first months were coordinated by the Alliance, one of the refugee organizations that now hires him to prepare meals for newcomers. As Afghans grow up with a social life centered around food, it took work with the US military to show Yusufzai how tempting his national cuisine is to outsiders.

A few years after Yusufzai obtained asylum here, he graduated from law school and was hired by an American company to work at home in Afghanistan as a military recruiter. There, at US military bases, he helped grateful American colleagues tired of the canteen to gain access to local food. When he returned to Houston permanently in 2012, Yusufzai knew he wanted to create a restaurant that would be a crossroads – not only for Afghans, but also for veterans and native Houstonans who love exploring the world through city restaurants.

Two hours before dinner in Afghan Village is already busy at the crossroads. The waiters come out of the kitchen and balance on piles of polystyrene boxes, which smell of stewed lamb, onions, garlic and ginger. It’s time for the daily delivery of so-called food from the Afghan village of YMCA, a $ 8 meal box offered by Houston NGOs to refugees who have just touched the country in their new city.

“We receive these meals not only for our Afghan clients, but also [for] to all the newcomers we serve, ”tells me Miranda Hurtado-Ramos, Community Resettlement Specialist at YMCA International Services. According to her, the tastes and ingredients are close to universality: expertly baked bread, aromatic rice and grilled meat. Meals are also halal, meeting Muslim dietary and animal slaughter requirements: a priority, though expensive, for many Muslim refugees in Houston. Refugee Services of Texas, another resettlement agency, also often serves meals. “People get food,” says development director Ashley Faye. “It’s just one way to let new families know they’re welcome.”

Around the small restaurant, other Houstons – Latino, Vietnamese, Africans – happily combine with the same tastes. Although Afghan food is not necessarily fiery, it often adds some degree of heat, from ginger, black pepper and spices such as cardamom and turmeric. Traditionally, she eats a pinch, with pieces torn from a large wheel of bread. Afghan Village bread is spring and fresh, lightly toasted, crispy like porcelain on the outside and fluffy on the inside. At the stalls and at one long central table, the diners use it to scoop rice from plates so long that it almost looks like pasta, roasted spinach that smells spicy like meat, and yellow lentils flavored with chili sparks.

Afghan Village, as diverse as its clients today, followed the path promoted by previous immigrant-run restaurants in Houston: it began as a meeting place for compatriots who missed home, gradually attracted locals who worked and lived nearby, and eventually became simply a Houston restaurant.

Relatively speaking, the city is well suited for this process. Five decades after Vietnam’s post-war migration – the largest in Houston’s history – Houston’s non-profit organizations and popular culture have gained some hard-won acquaintance with refugees. Instead of relying on individual sponsors as in the past, the city boasts a close coalition of resettlement agencies (such as Refugee Services of Texas, YMCA International Services, Alliances, Catholic Charities and Interfaith Ministries), which meet quarterly to exchange information. and the numbers and financing of the fund. Several members of this group, including YMCA International Services, first developed their skills decades ago in resettling Vietnamese newcomers.

With only $ 1,225 per refugee upon arrival for basic necessities, the U.S. government relies heavily on volunteers, donors, and a “YMCA meal” discount in Afghan Village to raise that money. According to agency workers, former Vietnamese refugees and veterans are among the most dedicated volunteers. And often their first hospitality is to take a newly arrived family for a meal in an Afghan village.

When they arrive, they can see Yousafzai rarely relaxing with friends for green tea. Even though he is busy in the kitchen, every surface of the restaurant speaks on his behalf about what is dear to him. Each wall or niche shows some aspect of American pluralism or Afghan complexity: a glittering embroidered dress, a furry goatskin blanket, a wall painting of Pashtun riders in swirling Renaissance-style robes. From the small kiosk, visitors can pick up modern translations of the Qur’an and brochures that break down stereotypes about Islam. One wall is decorated with a large American flag.

For Yousafzai, the walls of the restaurant are also a map of its past. Yousafzai already had an Afghan law degree when he followed his older brother to Houston in 1999. In 2001, he received a scholarship to study law at Southern Methodist University. He studied for several weeks in Dallas for a week and visited family and friends in Houston every weekend. “I love Houston,” he says. “It was the first American city I knew. When you’re an immigrant, no matter where you end up, wherever you land for the first time, it’s like you were born here. ”

The bilingual expat could not return home after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He was granted asylum from the US government, then worked in Afghanistan for ten years after a military contractor hired him to train and recruit interpreters. It was during these years that Yusufzai saw deep ties between military personnel and their Afghan interpreters. He says interpreters were much more than just language processors. They were cultural guides and taught American colleagues to speak politely in the presence of Afghan elders and take off their shoes when they entered a civilian house. And they faced great danger.

“When there was a foot patrol, we heard terrorists on the radio,” recalls Yousafzai. “They said, ‘The third guy on the left seems to be an interpreter. Shoot him first. ”When bad things happened, I informed the families. We had a lot of sacrifices among the interpreters. “

Yousafzai also saw another, happier bond between the two cultures. He found the Americans crazy about Afghan food. Yusufzai and his American colleagues based in Afghan military bases have been banned from entering the community, but like recent refugees currently being screened at military bases, they have been depressed by institutional food. Yousafzai devised a plan for locals to transport hot, homemade food from trusted neighbors or relatives. Crispy lamb kebabs, juicy pieces of beef stewed with ginger, soft bread to be torn apart: Americans easily liked Afghan cuisine. Yousafzai – talented for connecting cultures and a natural entrepreneur – noted in his mind.

When he returned to Houston, he opened one of the first Afghan restaurants in the city in 2012. As he expected, business was booming. Over the years, he founded a security company, added a souvenir shop on one side of the restaurant, and opened the halal market a few doors below. He married, had three children, and was joined in Houston by his parents. And as the business prospered, he could increasingly act on his propensity for hospitality.

In addition to delicious national cuisine, Afghan Village has two other benefits. The first is its clever location, in the heart of the Afghan enclave in Houston and a stone’s throw from two large resettlement agencies. The second is Yousafzai’s own personal determination to help others. In 2019, he published an opinion in Houston Business Journal to offer free food to anyone who cannot afford it. The number of people who were brave enough to do so was probably limited. But one day in November, as I was eating a lamb kebab inside, a disoriented man with a disheveled beard knocked irritably at the glass and pointed to his mouth. Soon the waiter ran out – I assumed he would drive him away. Instead, the waiter headed for the kitchen, and a few minutes later returned to the sidewalk with a heavy polystyrene box, followed by the familiar scent of ginger and garlic.

“YMCA meals are meals purchased, but the choice to work with Omer is intentional,” says Hurtado-Ramos. In addition to giving free food and quietly increasing portions when a large family stops, he says he will personally intervene when agencies need him. In early December, during a staggering week of 250 arrivals at the airport and far from a shortage of volunteers to attend to them, YMCA International Services turned to Yousafzai. They gave him a list of names and addresses every night. Every day, Hurtado-Ramos told me, he personally distributed food to up to twenty different refugee families throughout the city.

The refugees say Yousafzai is also like an employment agency that has hired dozens of refugees as waiters over the years. When former interpreter Zamar Niazi first visited the restaurant shortly after his arrival in August, Yousafzai immediately told him that once he received his social security card, he could work there.

This contact with Afghan hospitality, says Niazi, helped alleviate the shock of arrival. After more than a decade of interpreting for the military and American companies, Niazi applied for refugee status in 2019. He received no response until he collapsed two weeks before the fall of the Afghan government. Within days, Niazi, his wife, and their three young children fled their homes on a series of international flights from Kabul to Dubai to Washington, DC, and finally at 1:00 to Houston, where they were met by a YMCA International Services volunteer. at the airport. When they arrived at the new apartment, Niazi says, he was amazed to find a box full of chicken karahi, perfectly cooked in tomatoes, garlic and ginger. He bit some. It tasted like home.

Six months later, Niazi and his family learn to enjoy Texas. As I talk to him, he taps the phone to show off a sun-polished photo of his wife in a scarf joyfully digging water into the Galveston sky. It will be a long time before his family can afford to go to restaurants. Meanwhile, they enjoy the memory of the first surprising meal from an Afghan village that tasted one home and welcomed another.

David Berry

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