Annabelle and Christian Woltering started Refugee Street Food last fall in Berlin after watching, alongside the rest of the world, a historic influx of asylum-seekers into the city and the ongoing failures of social and health administration to adequately and humanely accommodate these people.
Wanting to do something to help the situation, and driven by their love of food and cooking, they came up with this simple concept: cook with refugees then sell their traditional or family recipes at popular street food markets in the city.
But in practice, Refugee Street Food is doing something much more.
On March 19th and 20th, I had the privilege of watching the volunteers – five Germans and five Syrians (three from Damascus and two from Aleppo) – work their third event at the Hello Festival at Arena Berlin.
What I saw that weekend, in all its colourful, flavourful bounty, was a moment of people quietly coming together, using the simple offering of “this is what I cook and eat at my home” to reconfigure ideas about who refugees are, to take the time to look eye-to-eye with a stranger and share good, special, thoughtful food.
When I first walk into the Gourmanderie kitchenin Charlottenburg, I am honestly a bit surprised at how carefree and calm the Refugee Street Food volunteers are. Here is a group of amateur cooks preparing 200 portions of food to sell at a large festival in mere hours and there are no burnt pots, feral smells, or meltdowns in sight. “We will never pretend to be a professional cooking service,” Christian tells me. But still, the group is impressively capable and grounded, and their food is delicious.
The smoothness of operations is less surprising given this is Refugee Street Food’s third rodeo. The first event, where the group cooked with four young Pakistani boys, was more hectic and steeped in learning curves: how to meet sanitation requirements, how to keep food warm, how to budget, how to advertise yourself, and of course, how to cook very, very well.
When I sat down with Annabelle and Christian in their Prenzlauer Berg home to talk about Refugee Street Food, I was tickled to learn that just below us in their basement was where they stored all the motley assortment of donated kitchen equipment they used at the beginning of the project. Christian recalls asking family members and friends for help in finding industrial sized pots; one person donated a comically ancient and unwieldy goulash pot.
Refugee Street Food is homegrown – the effort of ordinary, hard working volunteers all with their own daytime jobs and full time lives. As Annabelle says, “If there’s one thing people can take away from us, it’s that anyone can do anything to help in this crisis; being too busy is not really an excuse.”
And now today, Refugee Street Food is cooking for their third event in a professional kitchen with everything at their fingertips. The group has only grown in numbers. When I ask Florian Munder, another organizer on the team, about any challenges they have had this time around, he tells me there was so much interest from volunteers in helping out that it was difficult to communicate with them all clearly about when and where to come cook. This, of all the problems to have, is certainly not the worst.
Ghayth, from Aleppo, has prepared the menu for the weekend: “each” salad with bulgur and vegetables, and Fassouli, a savory stew with green beans and lamb meatballs. Ghayth has lived in Berlin for six months now. He admits to me too humbly, “I’m zero in cooking”, telling me that when he arrived in Berlin he found a new passion to learn how to cook Syrian dishes. Why? “Because when you arrive somewhere new, you have to introduce yourself,” Ghayth explains.
I think at first Ghayth is the one in charge of the cooking, until his aunt, who has lived in Berlin for 20 years, walks in. The rhythm of the kitchen shifts to accommodate her knowledgeable presence; she begins to take over the Fassouli, knowing exactly what to add and adapt. So is the magical paradox of the kitchen, so often a playground of improvisation and spontaneity, then suddenly, church-like in its tenacity towards the sacred realms of tradition and expertise. Refugee Street Food makes such good food because the recipes they use always come from the deep underbelly of old family taste and know-how.
Many people like Ghayth who have come to Berlin to build new lives often have to wait six months or longer for the papers that allow them to legally study or work. Until then, many of them live in isolated camps across the city with little opportunity to engage with the language and culture of their new home. Ghayth was lucky enough to live with a German host family, for which he began cooking small Syrian dinner parties with the guidance of his aunt and girlfriend.
Annabelle tells me Refugee Street Food started, in part, with the hope to provide an activity or outlet for those waiting in extreme boredom for their papers. There will always be more to do in the seemingly infinite expanse that is the refugee situation. Florian Munder talks to me about what it’s like to do the work of Refugee Street Food in the face of larger, perhaps more pressing systemic problems facing refugees. He acknowledges that “perhaps they are only able to work with refugees who are ‘further along on a so-called integration timeline’” and have basic needs met. There are already many volunteers in Berlin (Moabit Hilft, Nachts vor dem LAGeSo, Die Suppenkelle) who are working tirelessly to bring adequate food, water, shelter, and clothing to Berlin’s newcomers. What Refugee Street Food represents is a growing movement of volunteer-driven or community-driven organizations that are interested in changing the conversation around the thorny topic of cultural integration and giving immigrants a platform to introduce themselves and their culture.
When I ask Ghayth what it was like cooking for Refugee Street Food, he was overjoyed in his answer. He told me, “you need language to integrate somewhere and food is a language between different people” then continued powerfully by saying how happy he is to be able to show a different side of Islam or the Middle East that is about love and kindness.
Many have theorised on the essence of humanity and the specific question of “when did we become human?” is as popular and divisive as ever. Learning to make tools, walk on two feet, hunt, engage in war – all of these have been put forth by scientists as the crucial turning point in evolution that initiated our transformation from monkey to homo sapien.
Anthropologist Richard Wrangham – who is frequently cited by food writer and activist Michael Pollan – has his own answer: our evolutionary success is the result of cooking. No species on earth besides humans has yet to decide to regularly set things on fire to make food.
Chewing, as you may know if you’ve ever witnessed a primate eat, is a laborious day-long activity. Wrangham says in his book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human that cooking allowed us humans to waste less energy chewing and digesting raw, fibrous things and spend more energy growing our brains and becoming a more intelligent species.
As a primatologist, Wrangham is concerned with cooking at a much earlier point of human civilization. But fast forward billions of years to members of Refugee Street Food gathering together on a Saturday afternoon to prepare Syrian food for a Berliner public: what can be said now about Wrangham’s thesis?
As I sit in this kitchen watching people perform the rote, familiar activities of chopping onions and peeling garlic I am struck by what is different and new about today: the simultaneous streams of German, English, and Arabic, the grenadine syrup so essential to Syrian cuisine that I have never ever before seen used in savory cooking, the huge mound of bulgur that needs to be kneaded for over an hour, the Fassouli lamb stew that is somehow tart, smoky, and savory all at once.
I wonder how many people I know who can name five different Syrian dishes, or to be bolder, five Syrian people. This is not the benchmark for cultural integration, nor a completely fair test. Yet there is something not right about the disparity behind a media that continues to create the impression that an overabundance of refugees are “taking over” European cities and the reality that so many of these newcomers remain invisible and kept as such in their new homes.
Wrangham is right: cooking has taken people somewhere extraordinary. But this holds true, not just in the evolutionary sense, but in the much larger context of migration that continues to define over and over again what it means to be human. Humans move. And time after time, after the dust settles a bit, what do humans do after they move?
They build a fire and cook.
Food has proven itself to be one of the best ways to get many different people together into the same space and Refugee Street Food is a shining example of ordinary people using ordinary means to make something good, special, and thoughtful.