Politics

How a Houston Restaurant Became the Source for Afghan Refugees’ First Meals in America – Texas Monthly

On the morning of August 15, 2021, economist Mahmood Ebadi was sitting in his office at the Afghan economic ministry in Kabul when a friend called. Get home fast, the friend said. The government had collapsed. Ebadi dashed down to a street thronged with tens of thousands of people and began pushing his way home. He hid out there for weeks, during which time the bank holding his life savings was shuttered, until he managed to sell his car and buy plane tickets to Istanbul. With help from a veterans’ nonprofit, Ebadi, his wife, and their two-year-old daughter (like other Afghan refugees in this story, Ebadi asked to keep family names private) made it to Houston.

Their first hours in the new country felt like a nightmare. Ebadi’s toddler, raised in a three-story house full of grandparents and cousins, couldn’t understand where they were. Then Ebadi peered into the family’s new refrigerator and saw a stack of boxes containing pilau rice dotted with raisins and savory chunks of lamb. “I was not expecting it. But we loved it,” he says. His wife, exhausted by jet lag, stared at the familiar meal with joy. “How,” she asked her husband, “is this possible?”

In an odd flourish of bureaucratic hospitality, the U.S. government requires all its official sponsors to supply each newly arrived refugee with certain essentials: airport greeting, short-term housing, and one ready-to-eat “culturally appropriate” meal when they reach their new home. In some cities, this meal might consist of a grocery-store rotisserie chicken paid for by volunteers, or dinner cooked by a relative already living in the United States. But in Houston, where more than three thousand Afghans have poured in since September alone, the go-to meal from resettlement agencies likely includes freshly baked bread, basmati rice, and expertly stewed lamb or chicken from the Afghan Village in southwest Houston.

To restaurant owner Omer Yousafzai, the soothing properties of Afghan food are self-evident. Twenty years ago, Yousafzai, too, was a refugee in Houston. His first months, in fact, were coordinated by the Alliance—one of the refugee-focused nonprofits that now hires him to prepare meals for newcomers. While Afghans grow up with social life centered around meals, it took a stint with the U.S. military to show Yousafzai how alluring his national cuisine was to outsiders.  

A few years after gaining asylum here, Yousafzai graduated from law school and an American company hired him to work back home in Afghanistan as a military recruiter. There, on American military bases, he helped grateful U.S. colleagues weary of the mess hall to get access to local food. When he returned to Houston for good in 2012, Yousafzai knew he wanted to create a restaurant that was a crossroads—not just for Afghans, but for veterans and homegrown Houstonians who love exploring the world through the city’s restaurants. 

Two hours before dinnertime at the Afghan Village, the crossroads is already busy. Waiters emerge from the kitchen balancing stacks of styrofoam boxes redolent of simmered lamb, onion, garlic, and ginger. It’s time for the daily handoff of the Afghan Village’s so-called YMCA meals, $8 food boxes that Houston nonprofits offer to refugees who’ve just touched ground in their new city.

“We get these meals not only for our Afghan clients but [for] all the newcomers we serve,” Miranda Hurtado-Ramos, community support specialist with the YMCA International Services resettlement agency, tells me. The flavors and ingredients, she says, are close to universally appealing: expertly baked bread, aromatic rice, and grilled meat. The meals are also halal, conforming to Muslim dietary and animal-slaughter requirements: a priority, albeit an expensive one, for Houston’s many Muslim refugees. Refugee Services of Texas, another resettlement agency, also serves the meals frequently. “People bond over food,” development director Ashley Faye says. “This is just one way we can let new families know they are welcome.”

Around the small restaurant, other Houstonians—Latino, Vietnamese, African—are cheerfully bonding over the same flavors. While Afghan food isn’t necessarily fiery, it often delivers a degree of heat, from ginger, black pepper, and spices such as cardamom and turmeric. It’s traditionally eaten pinch by pinch, with pieces torn from a big round of flatbread. The Afghan Village’s bread is springy and fresh, ever so slightly toasted until crisp as porcelain outside and fluffy within. In booths and at the one long, central table, diners use it to scoop from platters of rice so long-grained it almost looks like pasta, sautéed spinach that smells as savory as meat, and yellow lentils seasoned with sparks of chile.

Varied as its clients are today, the Afghan Village followed a path pioneered by previous Houston immigrant-run restaurants: starting as a gathering spot for homesick compatriots, gradually drawing locals who work and live nearby, and finally becoming simply a Houstonian restaurant.

Relatively speaking, the city is well suited for this process. Five decades after the postwar Vietnamese migration—the biggest in Houston’s history—Houston’s nonprofits and popular culture have gained a certain hard-won familiarity with refugees. Instead of relying on individual sponsors as in the past, the city boasts a close-knit coalition of resettlement agencies (such as Refugee Services of Texas, YMCA International Services, the Alliance, Catholic Charities, and Interfaith Ministries) that meet quarterly to swap information and numbers and pool funding. Several in this group, including YMCA International Services, first developed their skills decades ago when resettling Vietnamese newcomers.

Because the U.S. government allots agencies only $1,225 per refugee for essential needs upon arrival, the agencies rely heavily on volunteers, donors, and the Afghan Village’s discount “YMCA meals” to stretch that money. Among the most committed volunteers, agency workers say, are former Vietnamese refugees and veterans. And often, their first act of hospitality is taking a newly arrived family for a meal at the Afghan Village.

When they arrive, they may catch a glimpse of Yousafzai taking a rare pause with friends for green tea. Even when he’s busy in the kitchen, every surface of the restaurant speaks on his behalf about what he holds dear. Each wall or alcove showcases some facet of American pluralism or Afghan complexity: a glittering embroidered dress, a quilt of hairy goatskin, a mural of Pashtun horsemen in swirling, Renaissance-esque robes. From a small kiosk, visitors can pluck free, modern translations of the Quran and pamphlets debunking stereotypes about Islam. A big American flag drapes one wall.

For Yousafzai, the restaurant walls are also a map of his past. Yousafzai already had an Afghan law degree when he followed an older brother to Houston in 1999. In 2001, he won a scholarship to study law at Southern Methodist University. For a few blissful months, he studied in Dallas during the week and visited family and friends in Houston each weekend. “I love Houston,” he says. “It was the first American city I knew. When you’re an immigrant, no matter where you end up, anywhere that you first land, it’s like you were born here.”

After the September 11 terrorist attacks, the freewheeling bilingual expat couldn’t return home. He received asylum from the U.S. government, then spent ten years working in Afghanistan after a military contractor hired him to train and recruit interpreters. It was during those years that Yousafzai saw the deep bonds between military personnel and their Afghan interpreters. Interpreters, he says, were far more than language processors. They were cultural guides, teaching U.S. colleagues to speak respectfully in the presence of Afghan elders and to pull off their shoes when entering a civilian’s home. And they faced enormous danger doing so.

“When there was a foot patrol, we’d hear the terrorists on the radio,” Yousafzai recalls. “They used to say, ‘The third guy from the left seems to be the interpreter. Shoot him first.’ When bad things were happening, I informed the families. We had a lot of casualties among the interpreters.”

Yousafzai also saw another, more lighthearted bond between the two cultures. Americans, he discovered, were crazy about Afghan food. Housed on Afghan military bases, Yousafzai and his U.S. colleagues were forbidden to venture into the community, but—like the recent refugees being vetted on military bases today—they were depressed by institutional food. Yousafzai concocted a plan for locals to ferry hot, home-cooked meals in from trusted neighbors or relatives. Crispy lamb kebabs, juicy beef chunks stewed with ginger, soft bread to tear apart with your hands: Afghan cuisine was easy for Americans to love. Yousafzai—talented at bridging cultures and a natural entrepreneur—made a mental note.

When he returned to Houston, he opened the city’s first Afghan restaurant in 2012. As he’d anticipated, business thrived. Within a few years he’d launched a security company, added a gift shop on one side of the restaurant, and opened a halal market a few doors down. He got married, had three children, and was joined in Houston by his parents. And as business prospered, he could act more and more upon his inclination toward hospitality.

Along with a mouthwatering national cuisine, the Afghan Village enjoys two other advantages. The first is its shrewd location, in the heart of Houston’s Afghan enclave and a stone’s throw from two major resettlement agencies. The second is Yousafzai’s own personal dedication to helping others. In 2019, he published an opinion piece in the Houston Business Journal offering a free meal to anyone who couldn’t afford one. The number of people bold enough to take him up on this was probably limited. But one day in November, as I ate lamb kebabs inside, a disoriented-looking man with a matted beard rapped irritably on the glass and gestured toward his mouth. A waiter soon hastened outside—to shoo him away, I presumed. Instead, the waiter headed to the kitchen, returning to the sidewalk a few minutes later with a heavy styrofoam box trailing the familiar scent of ginger and garlic. 

“The YMCA meals are purchased meals, but the choice to work with Omer is intentional,” Hurtado-Ramos says. In addition to giving free meals and quietly boosting servings when a large family stops in, she says, he personally steps up when the agencies need him. Early in December, during an overwhelming week with 250 airport arrivals and nowhere near enough volunteers to attend to them, YMCA International Services turned to Yousafzai. Every night, they gave him a list of names and addresses. Every day, Hurtado-Ramos told me, he personally delivered meals to as many as twenty different refugee families throughout the city.

Yousafzai is also something of a one-man employment agency, refugees say, hiring dozens of refugees as waiters over the years. Indeed, when former interpreter Zamar Niazi first visited the restaurant shortly after his arrival in August, Yousafzai promptly told him that as soon as he got a Social Security card, he was welcome to work there. 

That contact with Afghan hospitality, Niazi says, helped ease the shock of arrival. After more than a decade interpreting for both the military and U.S. companies, Niazi applied for refugee status in 2019. He got no response until two weeks before the Afghan government collapsed. Within days, Niazi, his wife, and their three small children were fleeing their home in a series of international flights from Kabul to Dubai to Washington, D.C., and finally, at 1 a.m., to Houston, where a YMCA International Services volunteer met them at the airport. When they arrived in the new apartment, Niazi says, he was stunned to find boxes full of chicken karahi, perfectly simmered in tomato, garlic, and ginger. He nibbled some. It tasted like home. 

Six months later, Niazi and his family are learning to enjoy Texas. As I talk with him, he taps his phone to show off a sun-burnished photo of his wife in a headscarf, joyously kicking water toward the Galveston sky. It will be a long time before his family can afford to go to restaurants. In the meantime, they’ll savor the memory of that first, surprising meal from the Afghan Village, which gave a taste of one home while welcoming them to another.

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