When Abdirahman Abdi, 14, arrived at one of the largest refugee camps in the world, he said the food tasted of bitterness.
“They gave us what I like to call ‘jail food,’ because we wouldn’t be used to it,” Abdi said. “Only our little sisters and brothers would eat it."
Abdi is now a student at Foster High School in Tukwila. After leaving Somalia, his family spent several years at this refugee camp near the Kenyan border.
He wrote a poem about food and the refugee experience for his poetry class at Foster, where 80 percent of the students are refugees or immigrants. The students there are acutely aware of the larger debate over allowing refugees into the U.S., Seattle poet Merna Ann Hecht said.
“Since the rhetoric has been full of such hatred and fear, I have definitely felt more anxiety and restlessness in the classroom,” Hecht said.
Six years ago Hecht teamed up with classroom teacher Carrie Stradley to create "Stories of Arrival." Together they have helped students write poetry and present their work. Hecht says poetry is the deepest way for them to explain what they left behind.
This year their poetry is being published by a local press, Chatwin Books. They’ve also recorded their poems and practiced reading to an audience.
Their book “Our Table of Memories” is a celebration of food across the miles – students have written poems about the meals they remember, and the people who made them. Hecht says the theme of food turned out to be a meaningful one.
“I had no idea how deep and intimate – I should have known but I didn’t – the connection of food to country, to culture, to grandparents, to gardens, to festivals would be,” Hecht said.
But food for these students is also about loss.
Malaak Abdallha writes about memories of her father, who died two years ago. In her poem “My Father’s Kitchen,” she described the saffron and tamarind in her father’s cooking, and the love and tenderness he brought to the process.
“My father was Yemeni. When he passed away, I missed everything that he used to cook. So that’s why I wrote that poem,” she said.
Now Malaak lives in Tukwila with her mother. Her Muslim hijab, or head scarf, brought her unwelcome attention just once -- after she arrived in Seattle.
“I went to downtown, and some old man was talking bad stuff about Muslims, and he said we are all terrorists. And he tried to pull off my hijab,” she said. A nearby police officer intervened.
“He saved me,” Abdallha said. “At that time I didn’t know any English, and I couldn’t protect myself.”
She says that scare was an isolated incident. These days her English is fluent, and in the melting pot of Foster High School she said most of her friends are Asian. She wants to be a dentist when she grows up.
“Everyone I met in the United States was so friendly, people here, they want to know us. They are so interested to know us and know about our stories,” she said.
In Abdi’s poem “The Food of My Country,” his mother’s dedication to cooking traditional food in the refugee camp and in the U.S. becomes heroic.
He writes: “In America we still cook our Somalian food. It travels with us wherever we go. It’s the taste of home.”
In the U.S., Abdi’s mother anchors their household, while his father works as a long-haul truck driver.
Abdi helps with his younger siblings in his spare time. He also plays basketball and American football, which had hadn't heard of before moving here more than a year ago.
“One thing I really like here is playing sports,” he said. For Abdi, happiness is American sports plus Somali food.
“Our Table of Memories,” a collection of poetry, also contains recipes and illustrations. It will be sold at area bookstores.
The students will host a book release at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 17 at the Tukwila Community Center. There will be cultural performances and poetry readings – and food, of course.
The Food of My Country
By Abdirahman Abdi
When my mother cooks, it smells of Somalia,
With memories of tea pouring in a cup,
Memories of splashing oil and sizzling meat,
I picture the blue skies like our Somali flag,
I picture the deep green forests with mangoes
That are not yet ripe.
Yet, I taste the struggle
That my family has gone through,
Struggle of food rationing
And never enough to eat,
Struggle for clothing,
not enough to keep us warm,
Struggle for houses, with leaking roofs,
at night in the rain, only plastic bags over the roof
Then the Ifo refugee camp, better housing
but still not enough food, and so strange to our tastes
a taste of bitterness, we were not used it,
or the food rationing,
until we all spoke honestly, especially my mother.
Then they let my mother cook, over a small fire
she cooked our Somali food.
In America we still cook our Somali food,
it travels with us wherever we go,
it is the taste of home.