I ate at a restaurant called “In Mood” founded by a Syrian gentleman in the Podil neighborhood of Kyiv. The restaurant has an interesting history. Years ago, he could not return home due to the intense conflict in Syria that continues to this day – he wanted to work instead of being dependent on charity. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) provided him seed funding to open a restaurant. Today he provides for himself and his family, employs Ukrainians, and makes the best falafel in the city. UNHCR made a smart humanitarian investment that helped him (and his Ukrainian employees) be self-reliant.
Not long after, I met an Ethiopian asylum seeker in Kyiv who also received seed funding from UNHCR to start a coffee shop called “Byzantium” in the same neighborhood. Numerous people have told me he serves the best coffee in Kyiv. In addition to making coffee on site, he sells coffee beans, tea, and Moringa (a highly nutritious plant) products throughout Kyiv. At present he serves Ethiopian food with advance notice but UNHCR is encouraging him to open to a full restaurant – which I am very much looking forward to. Kyiv has a wide and varied dining scene but this is the only option for Ethiopian food unless you know how to make it at home or have a friend who does.
Kyiv’s Musafir Restaurant was founded by Crimean Tatars – a Turkic-speaking, predominantly Muslim population with a thousand years of history in eastern Europe, forced to abandon their restaurant after Russians shuttered their restaurant during the occupation, forcing them to re-locate to Kyiv where they re-opened. Demand has been so strong that the owners are seriously considering opening another restaurant.
Closer to home, there are many other examples of internally displaced persons, asylum seekers, and refugees starting their own restaurants. Ethiopian and Salvadoran families fleeing conflict in their countries of origin opened restaurants after arriving in/around Washington DC – today, these populations are thoroughly integrated and the Capital City without Njera or Pupusas is unthinkable. After the assassination of Martin Luther King, much of Washington DC went up in flames during the Shaw Riots. Ethiopians moved into then blighted U Street, created restaurants and other businesses, helping it eventually become the trendy neighborhood it is now. That having been said, Washington DC is becoming so expensive that many of the newer Ethiopian establishments are being opened in the suburbs, and especially in Silver Spring. Bosnians who came to the Washington DC area also gravitated to the suburbs, mainly in Alexandria, opening restaurants as well.
As former Stimson Center Scholar in Residence Johanna Mendelson notes, the arrival of new ethnic restaurants often mirrors of the state of play in hot-spots around the globe. Food is borderless and we see this in the globalization of Syrian cuisine. One finds Syrians managing restaurants or catering companies throughout Canada (Peterborough, Toronto, Winnipeg, Wakefield), Austria (Vienna), Brazil (Sao Paolo), Germany (Oberhausen, Berlin), Egypt (Cairo), Turkey (Gazientep, Istanbul), Algeria (Algiers), Armenia (Yerevan), Jordan (Amman), Lebanon (Beirut), Palestine (Gaza), the United States (Houston), the United Kingdom (Cardiff) and too many other locations to list.
Restaurants are relatable – who doesn’t like to go out to eat sometimes? However, many other professions are represented amongst the displaced including teachers, health care professionals, lawyers, engineers, farmers, and entrepreneurs. If allowed to work, they strengthen local economies. They also strengthen communities by becoming colleagues, friends, and neighbors.
Please feel free to share your thoughts on displacement cuisine at @bryan_schaaf.