human migration

Resettling Refugees One ‘Culturally Appropriate’ Hot Meal At A Time

Neema Lumoni takes two days to prepare the Congolese food in her kitchen. She’s getting ready for a refugee family’s arrival from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Lumoni doesn’t know that they spent years living inside a Ugandan refugee camp – but she has an idea of what they’ve been through.

Lumoni came to the United States in 2016 after living for more than a decade in a Tanzanian refugee camp. When she touched down and entered her new home in New Haven, Connecticut, however, she was welcomed by the smell of her country’s cuisine.

“I was tired, very hungry,” Lumoni said. “I was too happy to see my food.”

She was greeted with familiar food thanks to a State Department rule that requires all official sponsors to “provide culturally appropriate ready to eat food” for refugees upon arrival in the U.S., according to an email a department spokesperson sent to HuffPost.

The rule was established in 1980 with the passage of the Refugee Act under former President Jimmy Carter. The U.S. had been opening its doors to people fleeing persecution for decades, but the legislation allowed for a more systematic process of vetting, admitting and resettling refugees.

“This is in that great American tradition of welcoming people with a meal, using food to express your hospitality,” said Chris George, executive director of IRIS, an immigrant and refugee resettlement agency in New Haven.

While some organizations abide by this food rule in strictly religious terms, such as making sure the food is halal, IRIS takes it further. Not only do they ensure that the food is familiar to the arriving refugee, but they often have previously resettled refugees prepare the food themselves.

“It immediately connects those families,” George said. “Often, they are there in the apartment to welcome them and hand them the meal.”

Lumoni, 28, is one of these volunteers. IRIS provides money for the ingredients, but she cooks all of the dishes herself.

It’s a type of welcome that runs counter to the messaging from the Trump administration.

“The United States will not be a migrant camp, and it will not be a refugee holding facility,” Trump said at a government policy meeting last year. “You look at what’s happening in Europe, you look at what’s happening in other places. We can’t allow that to happen to the United States — not on my watch.” 

This is in that great American tradition of welcoming people with a meal, using food to express your hospitality. Chris George, executive director of IRIS

During former President Barack Obama’s final two years in office, he raised the ceiling for refugee admissions amid the Syrian refugee crisis. In 2017, the ceiling was 110,000 admissions. The Trump administration’s proposed cap for this year was placed at 30,000, the lowest since the Refugee Act was passed. It’s forced refugee agencies across the country to cut staff and, in some cases, shut down offices completely. It’s part of Trump’s strategy to cut back not only on illegal immigration, but legal immigration as well.

Oftentimes refugees are on the move for years. They may not have access to food from their home country for years.

“When they get here, they want to begin to have some control over things,” George said. “And when they enter that apartment, they take a deep breath and say, ‘Finally, we’ve made it to this country where there’s safety, where we’re not going to be persecuted, and where we can build a new life. Let’s sit down and share this delicious meal together.’”

Despite the Trump’s administration’s stance on welcoming migrants, the State Department rule stands. It means that refugees will continue to be greeted by familiar food. In some cases, like in New Haven, it’s also bolstering community involvement in resettlement work.

“The amazing thing that has kept our morale high and kept us strong is grassroots support for refugee resettlement,” George said. “Every time something crazy and ugly is spewed from the White House, hundreds of people will respond and say, ‘We don’t accept that. We want to show our support for your work.’”

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