Welcoming Refugees, One Home-Cooked Meal At A Time | HuffPost Reports

Welcoming Refugees, One Home-Cooked Meal At A Time | HuffPost Reports

November 7, 2019 9 By William Morgan


ANNA LUCENTE STERLING: When
did you come to the US?
NEEMA LUMONI: March 17, 2016.
ANNA LUCENTE
STERLING: Did you eat
anything on your end journey
from the camp to the US?
NEEMA LUMONI: No, just cookie.
ANNA LUCENTE STERLING:
Just one cookie?
NEEMA LUMONI: Yes.
ANNA LUCENTE
STERLING: By the time
you got here you were
probably so hungry.
NEEMA LUMONI: Yes.
Tired.
Very, very hungry.
ANNA LUCENTE
STERLING (VOICEOVER):
Refugees traveling to the US
sometimes travel for weeks,
often with children in tow
and without many belongings.
When they land, some refugees
are exhausted, some starving.
But their first meal in the US–
that’s one less thing
for them to worry about.
– Can I hold the hand?
CHRIS GEORGE: Refugees go
through a very rigorous vetting
process overseas.
But then when they arrive,
they are met by my staff.
They are bundled up in
winter coats if it’s cold.
And they have there, waiting
for them in the kitchen–
a culturally
appropriate hot meal.
[MUSIC PLAYING]
When they reminisce that first
evening, when they arrived,
almost all of them
will mention how
surprised they
were to have a meal
that they’re familiar with.
Now sure, maybe some of the
kids were hoping for hamburgers
and French fries.
But in general,
people are really
touched by that culturally
appropriate meal.
ANNA LUCENTE
STERLING (VOICEOVER):
The meal is mandated by the
State Department, which says
“all resettlement
agencies that sponsor
arriving refugees must serve a
culturally appropriate meal.”
That’s where sponsors
like IRIS come in.
They make sure the food is
tied to the refugees homeland.
IRIS is an immigrant
and refugee resettlement
agency in Connecticut.
They help refugees from
war torn countries,
like the Democratic Republic of
Congo, Afghanistan, and Syria.
The group finds housing,
provides English lessons,
make sure children are
enrolled in school,
and helps with job placement.
Sometimes the people
cooking the meal
have been resettled
themselves, like Neema Lumoni.
She’s one of the
many IRIS volunteers
who cook the
family’s first meal.
I met Neema at her
home to find out
about her resettlement story
and to help her prepare
for the arrival of
a family of nine
from the Democratic
Republic of Congo.
NEEMA LUMONI: I was from
Congo, and then I traveled
to Tanzania refugee camp.
ANNA LUCENTE STERLING:
Is it hard for you
to think about that time?
NEEMA LUMONI: I have
my parents– they died.
And then I lived with my uncle.
ANNA LUCENTE STERLING: How did
you feel when your uncle said
that you were leaving Congo?
NEEMA LUMONI: It has taken
a long time to be OK.
[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]
ANNA LUCENTE
STERLING (VOICEOVER):
The Democratic Republic of
Congo, also known as the DRC,
went through one of its
darkest periods in the 1990s.
The Rwanda genocide forced
millions of Rwandans
into neighboring countries,
including the DRC.
This led to the first Congo
war and then the second,
lasting until 2003.
It came to be known as Africa’s
great war with more than six
countries and dozens
of armed groups
fighting within DRCs borders.
More than 1.2
million people were
displaced, including Neema.
She fled the DRC around
1998 and ended up
in a refugee camp in Tanzania.
In 2016, Neema came to the
US with her three children,
reuniting with her
husband who had already
resettled in the states.
ANNA LUCENTE STERLING: You
spent a long time in Tanzania.
NEEMA LUMONI: Yes, too long.
Nineteen years.
ANNA LUCENTE STERLING: How was
the cooking that was prepared
for you for that first meal?
NEEMA LUMONI: Oh, it
was good because it was
the same food I ate in Africa.
ANNA LUCENTE STERLING:
Were you surprised?
NEEMA LUMONI: Yes.
ANNA LUCENTE STERLING:
Were you happy?
NEEMA LUMONI: Too much.
[LAUGHTER]
ANNA LUCENTE STERLING:
Why do you want
to cook for the new family?
NEEMA LUMONI: Now you
never see anything too bad.
Yeah, I’m happy to do that
for the people everywhere.
CHRIS GEORGE: Refugees are eager
to give back because they will
never forget those first
few days when people
stepped forward to help them.
They know how important that is.
They know how it made them feel.
So they say, I want to
help the new arrivals,
the new refugees who are
coming next week or next month.
Please let me do what I can.
ANNA LUCENTE
STERLING (VOICEOVER):
Now Neema is preparing
food for a family of nine
originally from the DRC as well.
They’re coming from a
refugee camp in Uganda.
[WATER RUNNING]
NEEMA LUMONI: My aunt taught me
how to cook meat, rice, beans.
Today is good.
ANNA LUCENTE STERLING:
Today is good?
NEEMA LUMONI: Yeah,
because you learn.
ANNA LUCENTE STERLING:
She’s teaching me.
NEEMA LUMONI: Yes.
ANNA LUCENTE
STERLING (VOICEOVER):
The US has long
accepted refugees
fleeing persecution or war.
Since 1980, with the
passage of the Refugee Act,
the US government has
been systematically
vetting, admitting,
and resettling
refugees into American Life.
The US resettled about
85,000 refugees in 2016.
The following year, in 2017,
that number dropped to 54,000.
The decrease is part of
President Donald Trump’s
efforts to reduce the number
of people entering the country,
both illegally and legally.
And for 2019, his administration
capped refugees at 30,000.
That’s the lowest amount since
the Refugee Act was passed.
CHRIS GEORGE: We should be
resettling more refugees
than all of the other
countries with refugee
programs put together.
And that’s the way it was for
most of the past 30 years.
But the amazing thing that
has kept our morale high
and kept us strong
is grassroots support
for refugee resettlement.
So every time something
crazy and ugly
is spewed from the White House,
hundreds of people will respond
and say we don’t accept that.
We want to show our
support for your work.
ANNA LUCENTE
STERLING (VOICEOVER):
IRIS has about 500
volunteers supporting
its numerous programs
in New Haven,
which includes those
cooking arrival
meals for refugee families.
Back at Neema’s home, the
Congolese food she’s prepared
is finally ready
to be delivered.
She’s finished making a
traditional meal of meat, rice,
and fufu which is a starchy
dough popular throughout west
and central Africa.
Neema joined IRIS’s staff
in delivering the meal to
the refugee families new home.
But the family hadn’t
arrived yet, so Neema
was not able to meet them.
ANNA LUCENTE STERLING: So
tell me how the first meal–
when refugees touched
down in the US–
how that plays into their
resettlement process.
CHRIS GEORGE: They have
very vivid memories
of what the weather was
like, what the apartment
looked like, how
they felt when they
walked into that apartment.
I mean, these are people
who’ve been on the move
for many years.
They’ve been pushed around.
They’ve been persecuted.
Family members have been
pulled away from them.
Finally, when they
get here, they
want to begin to have
some control over things.
ANNA LUCENTE
STERLING (VOICEOVER):
When the family finally
arrived at their new home
their case managers
gave them a quick tour
and rundown of the place.
– This controls the
heat in your apartment.
[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]
– You started your
application four years ago?
[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]
– Like, ten years.
– Because I have 14 years in it.
– Wow.
– Yes.
– In Uganda.
– Yes.
We suffer, we suffer.
But we are hopeful.
ANNA LUCENTE
STERLING (VOICEOVER):
The father of the
arriving family,
Mihigo Mutoka, told me
they traveled for two days
and said the food on the
airplane wasn’t easy to eat,
especially since the
kids weren’t used
to the type of food provided.
But the food that Neema cooked
reminded him of food from home.
He said he was
feeling much better
and that now he could focus
on getting the kids in school
and finding a job.
CHRIS GEORGE:
Welcoming persecuted
people from all over the world,
helping them start new lives–
I mean, it doesn’t
get better than this.
It is our oldest, most noble
tradition– a tradition
of welcoming refugees–
that has helped
make this country
so strong and successful.
This is probably the best
foreign policy program.