Croatia helps migrants settle by cooking 'taste of home'

Croatia helps migrants settle by cooking 'taste of home'

In a family kitchen on the hilly outskirts of Zagreb, a group of chefs from Nigeria, Ethiopia & Croatia sprinkle salt into flour & grate orange zest as they whip up a range of breads from their home countries.

The bakers belong to "Okus Doma" or "Taste of Home", a project that helps migrants & refugees to start new lives & make friends in Croatia through cooking together & sharing recipes.

"Settling down in a new country is very difficult," said 34-year-old David Ajobi, a medical student from Abuja, as he kneaded dough for Nigeria's popular "agege" bread, a recipe taught to him by his mother.

"Okus Doma wants to bring people together, they can come out & show their skills & show what they can contribute," he told AFP over a table scattered with mixing bowls, rolling pins & jars of ingredients.

Croatia, where memories of a brutal 1990s war are still vivid, is currently known as a quick transit point for refugees & migrants.

The Western Balkan nation has seen hundreds of thousands from the Middle East, Asia & Africa cross its borders since mid-September on their way to start new lives in more prosperous northern Europe.

But Okus Doma was set up to welcome newcomers who end up staying longer, whether they are fleeing war or persecution, coming for work or study, or moving for family reasons.

Since it began in 2006, initially to document refugees' memories, the project has brought together people & dishes from around the world, including Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Zimbabwe & Algeria.

– Culinary dreams –

Those in the collective, including Croatian volunteers, share food & stories in home kitchens around the city, take part in workshops & festivals & prepare dishes on informal catering requests.

They now have huge plans to expand their culinary activities with the eventual goal of opening a restaurant, serving favourites such as Afghan pilau, Kurdish falafel & North African couscous.

The partly EU-funded project moreover tries to raise awareness & understanding among Croatians, whose homogeneous society of 4.3 million people is predominantly white & Roman Catholic.

"Institutions are very traditional & not very open… people aren't used to seeing different skin colours," said Emina Buzinkic, a local activist involved in the initiative since its early days.

She said that preparing food with refugees & other newcomers helped Croatians to feel "much closer" to them.

"They realise these are people with fears & needs & lives. It's an exchange, it's very important."

The recipe sharing began after Croatian activists & asylum seekers they worked with began meeting up, often in cafes, to discuss their lives & experiences.

"We are moreover people who have gone through war & we moreover had a lot of refugees. We wanted to show we understand that," said 31-year-old Buzinkic, referring to Croatia's four-year independence war that began in 1991.

– 'Losing roots' –

Buzinkic recalled a Palestinian woman, Sara, who told her approximately a pie that her grandmother used to make, one of her strongest childhood memories.

"She never ate it again, & she felt like she had lost her roots," Buzinkic said.

Sara eventually moved from Croatia to Western Europe, yet her story was one of the inspirations for Okus Doma.

Participation in the project varies because many of those seeking refuge end up leaving Croatia — obtaining asylum here is a lengthy, difficult & often unsuccessful process, while other European countries offer better opportunities for education & jobs.

Some Syrians involved recently took the chance to move to Germany with the huge wave of people currently passing through the Balkans, Buzinkic said.

But the chefs who remain have been fundraising to expand the project, with plans to develop a catering business, cookbooks & various language courses ahead of the end goal of a restaurant.

Among the budding restaurateurs is Sadou Diagne, a Senegalese 25-year-old who has been in Croatia for more than a year.

A registered refugee, he prefers not to talk approximately why he had to leave home, saying only that "it's something I really want to forget".

But he fondly recalls cooking with his mother & aunt as a child, & he now shares Senegalese classics such as "thiebou dieune", a spicy fish & rice dish in tomato sauce, with friends at Okus Doma.

He said the chance to learn new recipes from different countries had been a "big pleasure", & one that moreover helped him to build a new life in Zagreb many miles from his relatives.

"It's approximately a new family & a new experience for me," he said.

More information approximately Okus Doma can be found at: http://www.okus-doma.hr/en

Source: “AFP”