Refugee chef uses food to show people more alike than different

Updated 2017-06-23 11:08:23 Xinhua
25-year-old refugee chef Hassan (C) from Somalia, introduces his country's flavors to customers in Vassilenas, a restaurant with a long history in Athens, Greece, on June 22, 2017. (Xinhua/Marios Lolos)

25-year-old refugee chef Hassan (C) from Somalia, introduces his country's flavors to customers in "Vassilenas", a restaurant with a long history in Athens, Greece, on June 22, 2017. (Xinhua/Marios Lolos)

For extrovert young chef Hassan to present his refugee journey from Somalia to Greece in a menu of 6 dishes was a bet to win during the Refugee Food Festival that run through this week in local restaurants in Athens.

We met 25-year-old Hassan inside the kitchen of "Vassilenas", a restaurant with a long history in the Greek capital, preparing a fresh salad with black eyed peas, beetroot, lime, coriander and a traditional dish from his country, a roasted mackerel with hot sauce of paprika and chili.

"It is the first time I present my country's cuisine, and I am proud that people come and taste it," he told Xinhua.

While being used to cooking Mediterranean and Japanese cuisine for restaurants in Athens and Crete Island since 2012, it was the first-time Hassan, who was a guest chef for two nights at the restaurant, cooked Somali cuisine for so many people. The success was so huge that the owner decided to extend from two to three days the event.

Run under the auspices of the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR, the Refugee Food Festival was inaugurated in Paris in 2016, and this year was expanded to 13 European cities to mark World Refugee Day.

A citizen's initiative, the festival address to local restaurants to open their kitchens to refugee cooks with the goal to change people's perception towards refugees, to trigger job opportunities and to make participants discover delicious meals.

"Food unites people," Hassan said as he was looking people coming in the restaurant, expressing the value of the festival.

Not only people but cultures as well, as co-founder Louis Martin would say later. "We often talk about those countries through the prism of war. But these countries have much more to tell. They have culture, deep history and it is something you can find on our plates," he explained to promote the positive approach of the refugee issue.

Hassan's story reminds us the thousands of unaccompanied minors fleeing from war-torn countries in the Middle East, risking their lives to cross the sea and dealing with traffickers within the last three years.

With his life being in danger in his country Somalia, Hassan fled to Greece when he was 16 years old all alone leaving behind his family. For a whole month, he traveled by ship up until Turkey and then with a small inflatable boat reached Greece in December 2008.

"I did not know a lot about Greece, in 2009 I tried to leave illegally but I did not make it," Hassan recalled.

It was when he was excluded from the family reunification program, where he had asked to unite with his uncle in Finland, that he claimed asylum in Greece.

"I stayed in a hospitality center for unaccompanied minors at Exarcheia, in the center of Athens from 2009 until 2012."

With the support of the Network of Children's Right, he enrolled into a professional chef's course on a scholarship and had worked in hotels and restaurants since.

"I finished my school in 2012 and went on training in a big hotel in Crete for two years. Then I returned to Athens and started working as a chef," he said.

The most difficult part was his first six months in Greece where he lived in a small apartment with 20 other Somalis in Athens.

"A minor in a foreign country feels frightened, thinks about his future, where to sleep, who to meet," Hassan told Xinhua.

"But, then I managed to integrate into the society, to learn the language and meet with people who love me and want to be next to me," he noted.

Despite the difficulties, Hassan's integration into the society has been rather smooth, as he explained. After being in Greece 9 years, what does he dream? "To continue my work, to be at a restaurant as a chef," he confessed with a big smile on his face.

When we asked him if he would like to run a Somali restaurant in Athens, he hesitated to answer.

"In Greece, it is difficult to open my restaurant with Somali dishes. Maybe if I go to another country like Sweden or Britain where there are large communities of Somali," he said.

Though being something completely new to the Athenians who visited the restaurant, the Somali dishes made them a great impression.

"I did not have the opportunity to taste Somali cuisine before. Though we are only in the second dish, I must say that the menu is very impressive," Nikos Kourtzis told Xinhua.

Martin acknowledged the success of the event in Athens and other European cities. "We are impressed by the reaction of all the people participating in the festival. All the restaurants are full. The restaurants ask at the end when we can do it again," he said.

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