Seven restaurants in Greece opened their kitchens to refugee chefs this week to celebrate the World Refugee Day.
The Refugee Food Festival, a project launched by a citizen's initiative in Paris in 2016, has expanded with the support of the UNHCR to three continents this year, reaching 15 host cities and 100 restaurants.
"The idea of the Refugee Food Festival was mainly to change the perception of how the world sees refugees and to change the words that follow the word 'refugees'," said Sudha Nair Iliades, publisher of Athens Insider magazine and one of the organizers of the festival's Greek edition.
"Usually, it was followed by the words 'problem' or 'crisis' and we wanted it to be something more celebratory, something joyous, like a festival, and something very primal that all human beings can connect to, like food," Nair-Iliades told Xinhua.
As Nair-Iliades explained, there is a triple bid to the project – reinforce a perception of refugees as potential givers, rather than takers, offer people the opportunity to enjoy interesting meals, and accelerate the professional integration of refugees.
Seinat Neftalem from Eritrea, guest chef for two days at Bluefish restaurant at the heart of Athens, has been cooking for as long as she can remember.
"That's my dream: when I prepare food and people are satisfied, I feel very happy," she told Xinhua.
Back home, Neftalem was a sought-after cook, often invited to prepare food for ceremonies and big feasts. As she explained, food holds a special place in Eritrean culture, where eating together is very important. Sharing a meal is sharing love, she said.
Featuring fish, chicken, lentils, many vegetables and explosive spice mixes, Eritrean cuisine is a challenge to serve to a Western crowd, but Giorgos Economidis, owner and chef at Bluefish, insisted that Westerners have a lot to learn from it.
"I believe that the kitchen is, par excellence, the field of cultural exchange," he said. "This is the magic of food, it is an authentic giving, without borders, without taboos," he added.
Economidis, whose kitchen is already a mix of nationalities, said his first priority was to make Neftalem feel welcome. When she first arrived to the restaurant on Tuesday, she was very stressed and reserved, he said, but she is a quick learner and with the help of her colleagues the picture changed dramatically.
"I met a lot of experienced cooks here and I learned a lot of things from them, you cannot imagine how happy I am that I came here," Neftalem said.
"I honestly believe that if Seinat was to stay with us for another week, she could easily hold a permanent post in our kitchen," said Economidis.
Neftalem's culinary heritage was infused with the resident chefs' pro tips to create a menu that reflects a successful collaboration. Bluefish diners savored the exotic dishes, and had the chance to witness the traditional Eritrean coffee preparation ritual and taste the herb-infused coffee.
"My colleagues and I have enjoyed a wonderful meal. It was infused with many spices, it really brought the flavor of Eritrea here in Athens," said diner Boris Cheshirkov.
When Neftalem came to Greece in 2012 in search of a better life, she had to face a lot of difficulties. But all this seemed to be in the very distant past as she served her guests the traditional food of her homeland with a big smile on her face.
"I feel very happy because I know where I started from, but now when I see myself in the center of a touristic area and a lot of people are tasting my food, I feel proud of myself and confident that I will do more in the future," she said.
Her dream is to open her own restaurant. And she has already come up with the name: Seinat's.
As Nair-Iliades suggested, this may not be such a wild dream, pointing to the example of Lesvos, where a restaurant run by four refugees of different nationalities recently opened.
"I am absolutely certain that in the next year you will have a lot more of these refugee restaurants opening up all over Athens, all over Greece. And there will be food as a great unifying force," she highlighted.
After all, the most important aspect of last year's success of the Refugee Food Festival was the way it changed the refugee chefs' lives.
"Four out of the five chefs are employed professionally now and the fifth one has left Greece and moved to Sweden," Nair-Iliades confirmed.
The cheerful crowd who tasted Neftalem's cuisine also seemed to take the mission of the Refugee Food Festival to heart.
"It has been a wonderful experience and the Refugee Food Festival is something that we can enjoy first of all, but also think about what this woman who is our chef here must have gone through to reach the safety of Athens," Cheshirkov said.
As we said goodbye to Neftalem, she said: "I have been through a lot of difficulties; all I want now is a good life."