“One of them, though, took my breath away. On duty at the clothes shop, where men’s shoes are urgently needed, a tall young woman with a slight accent started up a conversation. Introducing herself as Nidzara Ahmetasevic from Bosnia, a freelance journalist here for two months to work with the refugees, she said, ‘I survived the three-year siege of Sarajevo, was evacuated when I was 17 because I was wounded, and then was taken in by an Italian family in Florence, where I spent a year. They are my family still. But I had to come here to help. I was a refugee, myself. This is my story, too.’”—Diana Farr Louis
Eating Well Is The Best Revenge
By Diana Farr Louis
ATHENS Greece—(Weekly Hubris)—March 2017—In January, eight people gathered in a corner of the sometimes packed café at Khora Community Center for refugees in Athens to talk about heroes. There were four volunteers and four guests (they are never referred to as refugees) of both sexes, almost as many nationalities as participants, and from a very diverse range of backgrounds. As Martha Myers-Lowe, the young woman who organized the workshop, told me, “The aim was to remember the people who have helped our lives be better, the unsung heroes.”
As Brits and Syrians, a Bosnian and a Czech (to name a few of the countries represented) got deeper and deeper into the discussion, plumbing their memories for heroes, they pulled up tales that ranged from someone who’d literally saved their lives to a teacher who “helped them find a spark in physics.”
What Martha said she found “most profound was that the stories and qualities that people said made someone a hero seemed universal. People from such very different countries had the same criteria: admiration for trust, respect, unity, and encouragement. One man from Syria said his biggest hero was Robin Hood, the hero from my home town in Nottingham! For me, the workshop crossed barriers and countries, it lifted people up and made them grateful.”
I didn’t learn the whole story from Martha until she had already left Athens after spending six weeks as a volunteer at Khora during her winter break from Sustainable Environment Studies at a Dutch university. But after just two visits to Khora, I came to the same conclusion as the workshop had.
“At the end of the workshop,” Martha wrote in an email, “when I mentioned that the refugee community were heroes to me, the bravest and most optimistic people I have ever met, the most beautiful validation occurred. A man named Talal replied that the volunteers were his heroes and that they seemed like the bravest and most optimistic people he had ever met. We ended up agreeing that we were all heroes, though in different ways and despite our different backgrounds.”
I must admit that I was just a wee bit apprehensive going to a refugee center. While so many of my friends and acquaintances have met the shiploads at Piraeus with baby carriers and food, played with kids on the sidewalks around Plateia Viktorias, volunteered at the big camps on the mainland or on Lesvos, taught art and even English to illiterate Afghan women, I’d had no personal contact with them for a variety of reasons, not all of them excuses.
But a commission to write about refugees and their food traditions sent me on an urgent search for places where they could cook and eat what they wanted, as opposed to the moldy pre-packaged meals that led to the riots at Elliniko (the old Athens airport) shown on TV in early February. And led me to Martha, a friend of a friend’s granddaughter, and straight to Khora/Χωρα, an eight-story building on the fringes of Exarchia, the Athens neighborhood famous for its anarchists but also home to some of the most creative ventures in this city.
One step through the door of the busy reception area was enough to give me a pleasant buzz. Everyone was smiling. Martha slipped through the crowd, instantly recognizable in her yellow jacket, and took me up two floors to the café/dining room, where she sat me down with a big cup of steaming tea. On the way, stopping briefly at a kitchen decorated with blue and yellow tiles, and on the stairs painted with cheerful plants, flowers or fruit, she introduced me to several guests and volunteers, exchanging hugs and kisses with half of them.
We didn’t sit for long and, tea in hand, I was given the grand tour. Khora was once a printer’s workshop but it had sat abandoned for four years until five of the core group of volunteers signed a lease last July. After lots of elbow grease, painting, and even basic carpentry—learned on the job, according to Claire, a volunteer who came out from the UK to help set it up—the center opened in November. Now in addition to providing up to 500 meals a day, it also offers language lessons (English, German, French, Spanish, and Greek), dental care, legal aid, a play place for little ones, a women’s-only room, a free clothes shop, yoga and music lessons . . . and the list is growing.
Positive energy bubbles in every room, along with giggles and peals of laughter, while spicy aromas permeate the air. You can tell that people feel relaxed and comfortable here, even when or perhaps especially when they have jobs to do. This is most noticeable in the kitchen, where refugees are both sous-chefs and chefs along with the volunteers, who share menial and monumental tasks, “whatever needs to be done.”
When I asked to talk to the boss, I discovered that Khora operates according to a horizontal hierarchy, but Martha did present me to Julia, kitchen organizer and one of the core group, which has now grown to 20 people. We squeezed into two seats at a large round table in one corner of the kitchen, where volunteers, mostly young British women, were sitting with their laptops. An older woman, Jayne, a retired lecturer from London, was reading Anita Brookner, resting after a long washing-up stint at the big sink.
Julia Shirley-Quirk, 27, half-British, half-American, grew up in Maryland, studied photography and urban agriculture at Temple University in Philadelphia, but went to the UK three years ago. There she got involved with Skipchen, an anti-food-waste group in Bristol that creates meals (and community) from perfectly good produce rescued from the trash bin (or skip, in British English). One thing led to another and, with pals from Skipchen, she went twice to the Jungle at Calais. After that, she and five friends drove down to Greece, ending up on Lesvos, where they—in collaboration with representatives from Better Days and No Borders—persuaded a farmer to let them create a camp in his olive grove for the overflow from the official site at Moria just opposite. When Moria was turned into a detention camp, some of the volunteers moved to Thessaloniki or other islands, and Julia eventually went to Piraeus, where she and friends found a way to provide showers for new arrivals.
When Skipchen colleagues learned about the old print shop, they leapt at the chance to take it over, realizing it had tremendous potential. Julia has been there for four months. Many volunteers come and go and come back again, as if addicted.
What is remarkable about Khora is that no one is paid. Donations cover the rent, food, and utilities. A cyclists’ club called Thighs of Steel pays the rent with proceeds from a sponsored run from England to Greece last summer and aims to do the same this year. Some money comes from a British charity called Help Refugees; the rest from private citizens. While we were talking, Julia had to excuse herself to go to a kitchen meeting, explaining that they were taking delivery of a whole new kitchen, a donation from Leeds University, and needed to plan how it could be installed with the minimum of disruption.
As she left, she said, “By now there are so many of us that we can reach an amazing number of people. For me, that means we can do anything.”
Her enthusiasm, confidence, and optimism reminded me of my young friends at Boroume, my favorite charity, which feeds thousands of people every week on food rescued from the bin/skip but which started five years ago with twelve leftover cheese pies from an Athens bakery.
Another thing Khora and Boroume have in common is their focus on building community. Boroume does it by creating networks between donors and needy in the same neighborhood. Khora does it by creating a cozy environment where volunteers and guests are equals; sharing food, sharing tasks.
After Julia left for her meeting, I sat with Fahad, a young Syrian man with a knitted hat and playful eyes, and his interpreter, Becka Wolfe, who studied Arabic and lived in Lebanon, and even Syria before the war, “long enough to fall madly in love with the country.”
Fahad is a Khora chef, a role he shares with an Afghan named Jawed and two Balochis, Unis and Samir, Julia, and others. He’s 27, but left school at 12 when his father became ill and went to work as an electrician’s apprentice. When asked where he learned to cook, he said, “Life taught me. I lived with a bunch of guys who knew nothing, and we had to eat.” He also picked up some skills to complement his intuition at the No Borders camp on Lesvos. His specialties include stuffed vegetables, okra, and rice, seasoned with chili flakes, cinnamon, cumin, mint, or even curry powder, but not as hot as Afghan dishes. Fahad has asked for asylum.
When we finished talking, Unis and Samir took their places. Both were political activists and had to leave their country, Balochistan which, like Kurdistan, is claimed by three states, Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan. Samir, just 22, translated for Unis, 30, who used to work in an automobile shop, and both of them got carried away telling me about meals they had cooked back home. Apparently it is the custom in their country for men to prepare the wedding feasts and picnics, and they scrolled down their phones to show me pictures of pots simmering outdoors and long loaves of bread (naan) wrapped in foil and baked in the sand. Samir also Googled Balochi treats and a restaurant somewhere in Germany. All these men wanted was “a safe place to live.” Their limpid eyes reminded me of Omar Sharif’s, and melted my heart.
On another day, I sat with a cluster of Afghan women who’d been having lunch. Asma, aged 9, broke the ice, with a “Yeia sou, ti kaneis?” (Hi, how are you?). Surprised to hear Greek, I joined them, and we exchanged names and countries, with the little girl translating for her mother and two other women. Then her father, Massoud, and a friend came by, and I learned that they lived in small tents at Elliniko, in deplorable conditions, but at least safe. But when Massoud told me that he had worked for NATO in Kabul for four years, and that no government—French, German, or American—recognized their debt to him, I could hardly keep my eyes dry for shame. An enemy to the Taliban, he fled with his wife and two daughters, the little one just 1 ½, walking and taking buses for a month until they reached Turkey and crossed over to Lesvos “in a very, very dangerous boat.”
I thought of what I was doing when I was in my 20s: married in New York, with a toddler son; summer holidays in Greece; a view of the Hudson River; friends, and tickets to the theater, the Met, and the Philharmonic. I had only one activist claim to my name: I’d joined a march on DC organized by Bella Abzug and carried a pink balloon among “Mothers for Peace in Vietnam.”
To me, the young (and older) volunteers I met and their extraordinarily stoic guests are indeed heroes for our time. The refugees are victims of fate. Yet instead of wallowing in self-pity, they seem to be responding with courage and kindness, and are invariably polite and gentle, even though their lives have been shattered. As for the volunteers, I have never known anyone like them. They have traveled here of their own volition, using their own money. They work hard in their home countries to save up to give their all to people they have never met, are on the job for up to 12 hours a day, six days a week, and are still able to smile, laugh, tease, and listen.
One of them, though, took my breath away. On duty at the clothes shop, where men’s shoes are urgently needed, a tall young woman with a slight accent started up a conversation. Introducing herself as Nidzara Ahmetasevic from Bosnia, a freelance journalist here for two months to work with the refugees, she said, “I survived the three-year siege of Sarajevo, was evacuated when I was 17 because I was wounded, and then was taken in by an Italian family in Florence, where I spent a year. They are my family still. But I had to come here to help. I was a refugee, myself. This is my story, too.”
My unbounded respect and admiration go to all of these people who leave their comfort zone to help the less fortunate.
As Martha had told me, “We believe in grass roots organizations. Every change for the good has to start from the bottom. We young people are totally disenchanted with the big charities and politics, even though that’s where the money and the power lie. My generation has to go with the small: that’s all we have.”
But as Margaret Mead, another heroic woman memorably said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Khora operates on a shoe-string budget, feeding its 500 on 25 cents a portion. If you would like to help support this community center, please contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hoboli (or Kabuli/Qoboli)
Hoboli (or Kabuli/Qoboli) is one of Afghanistan’s national dishes. Back there in times of plenty, it is a special pilaf cooked with lamb, sugar, and lots of different spices, but at Khora, where meals average 25 cents a portion, Jawed makes it with shredded carrots, raisins, and a bit of hot pepper. You would not expect such a brilliant young man to be in the kitchen at all. Just 27, Jawed is an Afghan structural engineer who graduated top of his class at Kabul Polytechnic University, and worked for NATO, ISAF (International Security Assistance Force), multiple embassies, and the Afghan Women’s Association for Rehabilitation and Development (as a cashier). Because he was seen to be carrying money for various projects in aid of women, both the Taliban and the mullahs posed a serious threat to his life and their cash, and he had to escape. But while still at home, he used to cook for his mother on Fridays, “to give her a day off.” At Khora, he also works as a carpenter—he can make anything—and as a dental assistant. And despite his uncertain future, he remains positive, charming, sincere, and affectionate.
Inspired by his description, I made my own version, and it is surprisingly delicious.
For 4-6 people, not 400
2 cups basmati rice
1 medium onion or a handful of spring onions, chopped
4 carrots, shredded
butter or olive oil
1 cup raisins
pinch of saffron threads
Aleppo pepper or other chili flakes, to taste
chopped parsley and/or coriander
Wash the rice and soak for 2 hours in plenty of water. Drain. Bring a big pot of salted water to the boil and cook the rice until al dente. Drain.
Meanwhile, sauté the onions and carrots in a knob of butter or oil (I used both) until soft. Stir in the raisins and the seasonings,
Spread the rice in a big frying pan, and with the handle of a wooden spoon, make 5 or 6 holes in the rice—this makes it steam evenly.
Spread the sautéed vegetables and raisins on top of the rice. Put a clean dish towel on top of the pan and cover. Simmer very gently. “The dish is ready when you hear the rice going tic tic tic on the sides of the pan.”
Well, I didn’t do it quite that way, I just sautéed the rice in the same pan as the onions and carrots, added the seasonings, 2 cups of Knorr vegetable broth, and cooked it slowly, adding the chopped parsley and coriander about 3 minutes before the rice was ready. It did not go tic tic tic, but it was excellent all the same. I think you can make this as elaborate and simple as you want, but I would love to go to an Afghan feast and have “the full catastrophe,” to take Kazantzakis’s Zorba out of context.
Note: The first image above I owe to Martha Myers-Lowe.
To order copies of Diana’s Farr Louis’ newest book, A Taste of Greece: Recipes, Cuisine & Culture, from Amazon, click on the book cover below.