“I tried date vinegar today,” I told my mom, who called from snowy Michigan to hear how things were in sunny Arizona.
“Date vinegar? I’ve never heard of such a thing! What did it taste like?”
I didn’t know how to describe it to her; I couldn’t think of words that fit. That got me thinking: Is this how refugees feel when they come to the US—like they don’t have the words to describe what they are experiencing, even in their native language?
So often we see refugees solely as people in need of aid. After all, they have come here for protection, and must learn a new language, a new culture, and a new way of life. English is often not a second language but a third, fourth or fifth. The culture is confusing, and navigating systems like healthcare and education can be overwhelming. Finding a job that can both feed the family and pay the rent is another stress-filled challenge. And all this is on top of dealing with the aftereffects of the trauma and persecution which caused them to leave their homes initially.
While all these struggles are real, we can forget to see beyond them to recognize that refugees have things to teach us, too. Date vinegar is just one example of this.
Under the instruction of Alaa and Faeza, two Iraqi refugees, we started the vinegar in December. After about 45 days, it had reached the point where it was ready for processing. An Egyptian refugee, a Sudanese refugee, and several other volunteers joined Alaa and Faeza to get started.
As we stood in the kitchen, I tried to soak in the steps while Arabic sentences floated over my head. I recognized that even if the refugees spoke in English, I still wouldn’t understand; I know nothing about the intricacies of making date vinegar. As Alaa showed Barbara a more effective way to squeeze the dates, I remembered the time he showed us all how to properly cut open pomegranates. The Sudanese refugee, who was a farmer in Darfur, was with me on my first orange harvest, where he showed me how to pick oranges properly. Manerva and Faeza have done cooking demonstrations at Tucson Meet Yourself, and they continue to share their food and their culture in other ways, as well.
At Iskashitaa we work with refugees because we care deeply. We want to see them become successful in America and we want to see them become part of the community. Yet we also work with refugees because we recognize that what they have to teach us is incredibly valuable. As I experience this more and more, I realize that these lessons change me in significant and meaningful ways. I begin to think that cross-cultural exchange is not just enriching, but vital.
As we finished up in the kitchen, Faeza said, “I want everyone in Tucson to taste date vinegar.” So do I—but I hope that date vinegar is only the beginning.
Iskashitaa Refugee Network
Iskashitaa Refugee Network