Migration, food and friendship

I’ve been thinking a lot about migration these days, especially forced migration: people having to leave home, mainly due to threats of violence and continuing conflict, but also due to environmental destruction caused by drought, floods, and mining and dam projects.

The sheer numbers of people who have been forced from their homes speaks to this global crisis. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), by the end of 2013 over 51.2 million people (and another 5.5 million by mid-2014) have been forcefully displaced, including 16.7 million refugees and 33.3 million Internally Displaced People (IDPs).

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House of Hope and Light is a education and social activities center for 120 refugee girls affected by the Syrian crisis. The center is located in Nabaa, a very poor neighborhood in the Beirut suburbs, where many Syrian and Iraqi refugees have settled. MCC supports this ministry of the Greek Orthodox Church, including its education programs for girls.

As a policy office, we constantly follow government announcements and debates around Canada’s response: commitments to open our doors to thousands of refugees from Syria and Iraq; access to health care for refugees and refugee claimants; and Canada’s long history of private sponsorship.

As we attempt to address global migration trends, it is easy to get bogged down by statistics and constant policy debates. How can we keep from getting discouraged and overwhelmed or giving up?

For me, it comes down to the personal. In my own life I’ve been able to develop friendships with people from all over the world, many who have experienced terrible circumstances firsthand. We’ve shared struggles, stories and, yes, we’ve even shared our favourite recipes — all with a side of advocacy.

It sounds cliché to reduce cultural experiences and personal connections to food, as if trying new food is sufficient to understand others. However, food does have real power over our emotions and relationships. When we’re feeling homesick, we eat certain foods to feel more at home, or — just the opposite — we like to try new foods to get a taste (pun intended) of new places.

But it’s not the food itself that helps us make personal connections. Instead, it’s the moments of time spent with friends or meeting new people, where they have told me their stories, while teaching me how to make favourite dishes from home. Through cooking and eating together, friendships grow, and so has my own dedication to advocacy.

While in Colombia with MCC I developed friendships with several families that had been displaced by violent conflict in their home regions, some remaining under threat even in the capital city. In one particular friend’s story, a group of paramilitaries killed her brother in their home village on Colombia’s Atlantic Coast and, after reporting this crime, the group turned on her family, pursuing them all over the country. My friend and her family found refuge within the Mennonite Church in Bogota and were well supported there before eventually being resettled to Canada.

I became close to them through my church and we shared many moments, sometimes talking about politics and their story, other times about her home region and life in general. One afternoon, before leaving for Canada, my friend, her husband and three girls came over to my house to teach me how to make typical Coastal dishes: coconut rice, fried plantains, and lemonade made with raw sugar cane. This experience is one of my fondest memories of my sojourn in Colombia: hearing my friend talk about her life on the Coast and her proud Costeña identity. We grew closer in the process.

Maqlubah, the national dish of Palestine

Maqlubah, the national dish of Palestine

Another memory comes from Ottawa. While at a recent event on Israel/Palestine, I won a door prize: a free cooking lesson from a Palestinian Canadian. Sitting in her living room looking at maps and pictures, and later chopping onions and smelling the spices in what some have dubbed the national dish of Palestine — Maqlubah — we learned the story of her long journey from Palestine to Canada.

Adeba (not her real name) was only five at the time, but she still vividly remembers the sound of helicopters flying low to the ground as her family was forced from their home in Jaffa in 1948. The family moved from Jaffa to Gaza, Egypt, Iraq, Kuwait and eventually Canada in 1997. Adeba clearly will never stop talking about and advocating on behalf of her homeland of Palestine. It was an honour for me and my companions to hear her story and get a small taste of her beloved homeland.

These stories, among others, offer messages of hope, but also challenge us to continue our work; whether that is addressing root causes of migration, supporting initiatives that allow people to remain in their homelands; or welcoming newcomers into our communities, and learning about their lives through sharing time, stories and, yes, food.

We encourage you to get involved with these and other issues within your own communities or through taking advantage of any MCC opportunities. For example, every May, MCC in Alberta and Saskatchewan offer a three-week learning tour opportunity for Canadian university students called Uprooted which examines the issue of migration while visiting partners and projects in Mexico (both the northern and southern borders). This learning tour allows young adult Canadians to meet with and discover first-hand the issue of migration within the Americas and how it impacts the lives of tens of thousands of people every year.

By Rebekah Sears, policy analyst for MCC’s Ottawa Office.

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