What Working With Refugees Has Taught Me About Food and Culture

It was my first semester of college and like everyone around me, I thought I knew everything there was to know. So obviously it came as a surprise when I realized I was clueless about a subject that is generally important to most: culture.

As a white female who grew up nondenominationally in small town south Florida, I never really had a culture. I never celebrated my ethnicity or my ancestral roots. There weren’t any traditions passed down to each generation from the one before. I always thought it would be so powerful to be a part of something like that, but I always knew that my privilege denied me the right to complain on the subject. I learned though, through each passing day spent with some of the best friends I have ever made, that culture is very often found simmering on the stove or browning under the broiler.

I was excited to start working with local refugees for a class I was in and I, along with three other girls, were assigned a family that lived twenty minutes from our campus. Our first meeting with them started in the parking lot of their apartment building with a social worker who briefed us on each member of the family. “The youngest is seven; he is hilarious and you can’t help but laugh at his funny little voice…” She went through her papers in a hurry, excited for us to meet what she obviously deemed a family worth knowing. We went in to meet them and from that day on my life was forever changed.

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It has now been a year since that first meeting and I can still remember the taste of the strawberry yogurt one of the kids handed me with a shy smile. This was their sweet welcome. Since then, I make the drive once a week to see what I call “my kids” and help them with homework and just hang out. People tell me all the time that they are proud of me or that I am such a kind kid for all that I am teaching this family, but whatever I have taught them they have taught me more.

Through after school sports, birthday parties, and top hits radio, the kids have become more and more Americanized. The youngest boy began to forget his native language and the oldest girl began dating boys from school, but each time I went to visit, there was a familiar smell wafting from the kitchen. They had the same views they had always had on pizza (it was weird) and candy was good, but it was way too sweet to eat more than a few pieces at once. Stories they told me from what they remember about home always revolved around food and how they used to make it. They rarely broke out of their comfort zone when it came to meals and to me that seemed just fine because everyday they celebrated a bit of their culture with what filled their stomachs. This was a homage to their old lives, whether they realized it or not.

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So now not only do I have great friends, but I know now that I do have a culture to celebrate. I learned that who I am is a girl who used to eat bagels with strawberry cream cheese for breakfast, something that I will pass down to my children I’m sure. I found myself through chicken fingers (although now they are meatless) and pretzels dipped in squeeze cheese. I can now close my eyes and picture my culture and in front of me is a big fat piece of Macintosh chocolate cake.

2 thoughts on “What Working With Refugees Has Taught Me About Food and Culture

  1. Joy Johnson says:

    Natalie, that is amazing! You definitely have a flair for writing and I hope you will pursue it. Could not find one error in it (and I was a proofreader for University Press at FSU and for McGraw Hill). I am so proud of you and Emily. She got a promotion and you delivered a beautiful essay. Love you lots, gmj

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