Afghanistan boasts a history of more than 5,000 years. Throughout the ages, food has played an important role in celebrating Afghan culture and affirming the bonds of family and community.
Now as tens of thousands of Afghan refugees prepare to start new lives in the United States, food is central to the long and sometimes painful process of leaving behind old ways and embracing new ones.
Members of the Afghan community in central Pennsylvania who are awaiting the arrival of the first refugees to the region have received news that many of the refugees being housed in military bases across the country — some of them relatives — are not adjusting well to the food being offered, and as a result, are discarding the meals instead of eating them.
For many, it’s just another part of the process of coming to terms that they will likely not return to a beloved homeland and must adjust to new American ways — and, in this case, foods that they may have never eaten before.
“It’s not that they are ungrateful. It’s not that at all,” Dyna Mohmand, herself an Afghan immigrant who moved to Mechanicsburg some years ago from her first stop in Canada.
“They spent so many days at the airport in Kabul. Then they went to other countries. … You can imagine how difficult it is to lose everything. To go to another country and not be allowed to get out. The future seems very unstable and unknown. They are wondering if they are going to be deported. Their lives have changed so much and nothing is going to change until they get out and start their lives. It’s going to take a while.”
Mohmand has been recently heard from other members of the Afghan community here that relatives who are being vetted by US officials are simply tossing meals away.
“We heard that the food was not very pleasant to anyone and they were throwing it away,” she said. “They are going through a very difficult time right now.”
The news has prompted volunteers with the International Service Center, which is one of the agencies preparing to welcome the refugees to the Harrisburg area, to change directions in its food donations requests.
The volunteers had put out a call for canned and shelf stable foods — along with clothing and household donations — ahead of the arrival of the refugees
But since learning of the food issues, Anthony Ossamang, a donations coordinator, is focusing donation drives on obtaining foods such as basmati rice and all kinds of beans, dried or canned, as well as chickpeas and lentils.
“Once they arrive we want to look to see if anyone can help with getting fresh produce, fresh vegetables,” he said. “We can’t get it now because it will go bad. We don’t know when they are coming. But if anyone is willing to help get fresh vegetables once they arrive, that would be great.”
More than 50,000 Afghans have arrived in the US since being airlifted out of Kabul late last month after President Joe Biden withdrew US troops from the war-torn country.
Hundreds are expected to resettle in central Pennsylvania in coming weeks.
Ossamang notes that once they have arrived, volunteers will seek to secure donations of meat for the families. As the majority of the refugees as Muslim, the meat has to be Halal which, similar to the concept of kosher, refers to meat that is permitted by Islamic law.
“We are trying to lean toward fish and tuna instead of beef or chicken for now,” Ossamang said. “But the best thing that will hold us over are the rice and beans.”
The International Service Center has been overwhelmed in the past week with the outpouring of offers from central Pennsylvania residents looking to help resettle the families in any way. Ossamang last week received more than 200 emails from people willing to make donations or offering to help.
“It’s been amazing,” he said.
He has redirected some of the food that has already been donated to the food pantry run by the International Service Center.
“Whatever food we have collected already will go to another cause, to feed the homeless,” Ossamang said. “It will not go to waste.”
Mohmand stressed that her fellow countrymen who are struggling to eat the military rations being served are not ungrateful, but rather just in a bit of culture shock.
She explained that there are so many foods that Afghans simply are not familiar with – for instance, mashed potatoes.
“They wouldn’t know what to make of it,” she said.
They are not well acquainted with pasta either. Indeed the mainstay of Afghan cuisine is rice – most notably the kabli pulao made with basmati rice infused with spices, onions, raisins, carrots, and almonds.
“Our food is cooked from scratch,” Mohmand said. “We don’t boil or steam potatoes. We have to cook the food very well. That’s what makes the difference.
The Afghan culinary tradition has been built around such iconic dishes as samanak, sheerbernj, shurwa (spicy soup) and qabili Palaw (meat with rice).
Mohmand is confident that once the refugees have resettled into their new homes and have integrated their traditional Afghan food with the traditions of their new home country, their lives will seem much brighter.
“The way I see it, our food is the best food,” she said. “We cook it but you taste the food itself. We don’t force it with spices.”
TO DONATE OR VOLUNTEER:
The International Service Center is in need of donations that will help Afghan refugee families resettle in central Pennsylvania. Due to the pandemic, only new items – from clothing to household goods are being accepted at this time. Truong Phuong, the executive director of the International Service Center, is heading the resettlement efforts.
To donate and coordinate drop off, contact Anthony Ossamang via email: email@example.com.
For more information on volunteering and donations, contact the International Service Center at 717-236-9401; firstname.lastname@example.org