RISSE: How Food Brings Migrants Home
“How’s the food?”
Travelers to distant lands always field this question when they return home. The entire premise of one of the greatest works of literature, Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, hinges on the adult narrator’s sudden return to his childhood via a madeleine cake dipped in tea.
Food is both a practical and deeply symbolic bond to a time and a place, capable of superseding boundaries put in place by geography, time, money and culture. Meticulously planned meals are as frequently deployed by heads of state as a means of easing tensions and courting rogue nations into compliance as they are by mothers attempting to ease tensions and court rogue toddlers into compliance.
Now imagine having fled your home, probably forever. Leaving behind loved ones and your most treasured possessions to a fate best not contemplated but impossible to not constantly imagine.
Bet the last thing you’d want to do, when adjusting to a foreign land, home, tongue and set of customs is eat something unfamiliar.
“At the end of the day, after eight years in America, I still want to taste the flavors of my childhood,” Rifat Filkins tells Edible Capital District. Currently the executive director of Refugee and Immigrant Support Services of Emmaus (RISSE), she came to the United States from Pakistan in 2009 on an H1-B work visa. At that point, RISSE was just developing (for more on the past and present of RISSE, see the sidebar, below). Before her move, Filkins was the principal of a high school in Pakistan for 11 years, but she was eager for new challenges and an adventure.
“When I was offered the job and a visa, to be honest, I was shocked,” Filkins said. “It’s unusual for a single woman to come to this country alone for a work opportunity and I wasn’t confident at all that I’d be allowed in, but luckily everyone at RISSE was very welcoming. I was ready for a change, and boy did I get one!”
The transition from her life in Pakistan, filled with friends, family and the familiar comforts of home, to being a stranger in a strange land was not easy. When she first arrived, tasks that are irritating to native-born Americans (finding an apartment, learning a new bus route, deciphering health insurance rules and securing a doctor) became Sisyphean tasks that could occupy days of Filkins’s time. She persevered, rising to become executive director of RISSE in just a year, marrying fellow parishioner Richard Filkins in 2011, officially becoming a citizen in 2014 and, best of all to Filkins, welcoming a daughter named Alyssa on whom she and her husband dote.
“If my colleagues at RISSE had not been here to support me, I don’t know how I could have coped,” Filkins admits. “And while my English is far from perfect [editor’s note: it’s probably better than mine] at least I can speak the language, which is more than most of the people we work with can say.”
As she is quick to point out, Filkins also arrived with a job. So for the “average” refugee she sees at RISSE, the adjustment period is significantly more intense.
Considering the maze of challenges a refugee must navigate, being concerned about what they’re eating may seem callow at first glance, but for someone who’s been through the process, it’s anything but.
“Food is a bridge for people,” Filkins says. “It’s a way of communicating who they are and their desire to open their hearts and help each other, without saying a word. Many of the refugees we work with are so terrified when they first get here they don’t even want to leave their house. We’ve found that sharing organized meals together as a community has done wonders for their ability to adjust and open up to America.”
Last year, a total of 5,028 refugees resettled in New York State, 457 of whom settled in Albany County, according to the most recent numbers from the Comptrollers’ Office. More than 40% of all arrivals were from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Syria and Iraq. Immigrants represent some 22% of New York State’s population, while that national figure hovers around 13%.
Currently, about 200 refugees and their families are served through RISSE, for a total of about 600 individuals per year. For the first 90 days of a refugee’s stay in the United States, resettlement agencies are responsible for housing them. From there, refugees are responsible for finding a job and a home. Children are expected to attend school.
That’s where RISSE steps in. Refugees arrive at their office, sent through word-of-mouth from other recent arrivals or at the recommendation of resettlement agencies and public school administrators.
Through RISSE’s network of official programs, the organization assists refugees in finding apartments, learning English, medical care and jobs, in addition to countless other minor but significant tasks (how to read a bus schedule, navigate an American grocery store, use basic kitchen and home utensils, etc.).
Free after-school care—with language and homework assistance—is offered for children. Two chefs (former refugees themselves) are on hand to cook these children what is sometimes their only hot meal and snack of the day.
“They take orders!” Filkins says, laughing. “Oh, they love cooking for these children. Many of them come from Africa or the Middle East, so we serve a lot of bean dishes and rice. But pretty soon, most of our children here love the American pizza and macaroni and cheese, too.”
For many of these children, being able to enjoy flavors from their former home and their new home, sometimes in the same meal, literally bridges a gap between the old and new for them, and significantly lessens the strain of their adjustment period, Filkins explains.
Much of the staff at RISSE is foreign-born. Many arrived at RIISE years ago fleeing from religious persecution and political as refugees themselves. In addition to the two chefs who hail from Iraq and Yemen, there is an operations director from Rwanda, drivers from Sudan and Syria, teachers from Algeria, Pakistan, Ghana and Congo.
While there are not daily hot meals provided for adults through RISSE, most who come to the center for English classes bring food from home. Filkins and other staffers say they often see them generously sharing whatever they have with each other.
“Food is a universal language, and many of them use meals as a way of practicing English with each other or trading recipes and shopping tips,” Filkins explains, acknowledging that she, too, utilizes the diverse array of ethnic markets in Albany and makes sure new arrivals know where to find them as well. (Ali Baba’s Indian Spices, India Bazaar, Asian Supermarket and Parivar Spices and Food are a few of the perennial favorites for pantry staples and esoteric grains and spices unavailable at mainstream markets.)
RISSE also organizes more formal potlucks several times a year, and always on Thanksgiving.
“We cook a traditional Thanksgiving meal and explain its history and importance,” says Filkins. “And then people bring their own dishes, too, and share. I’m always overwhelmed by their generosity when they have so little. For these refugees, food is the simplest way to show they are loved and cared for. Sharing meals with these refugees is continual reminder for me, especially in our divided times, of the beauty and hope in humanity.”
RISSE’S PAST & PRESENT
RISSE is a family-based center created to support immigrants in building a sustainable life in the United States.
It was created in 2007 by a group of concerned individuals at Emmaus Methodist Church, it grew by leaps and bounds as the needs of the community came into focus.
In 2011, the organization, which was created to address the needs of Congolese and Rwandan refugees, officially became a 501c3 nonprofit, and started addressing the needs of all recent refugees and immigrants, regardless of their country of origin.
Currently, more than 200 refugee and immigrant families are served, and they represent more than 22 countries of origin.
RISSE’s youth program provides after-school educational programs and home-cooked meals to children between the ages of five and 15. During the summer, there is an intensive seven-week program for children who require care and education.
RISSE’s adult program provides full-time ESL (English as a second language) classes to adults, with beginner and intermediate programs available.
RISSE’s family program is a one-stop-shop for people of all ages in need of housing, medical, employment, legal and childcare assistance.
In the past four years, nearly 300 people have been placed in jobs through RISSE.
Every summer, RISSE partners with the city of Albany on a Summer Youth Employment Program, giving 20-plus youth in their programs work-based educational and job-training opportunities.
On average, at least two-thirds of the youth in the summer program improve their literacy skills by one or more grades.
Last year, 600 individuals in the Albany area received one or more services from RISSE.
WANT TO HELP?
RISSE seeks volunteers for homework help in the after-school program, for one-on-one help in the Adult English Language program and for help around the office.
A tax-deductible donation of $25 provides school supplies for students in need.
A tax-deductible donation of $50 provides a winter coat, hat and gloves.
A tax-deductible donation of $100 provides scholarships for students in the after-school program.
Gently used household items, appliances, clothing and furniture are also welcome.
For more information and to find out other ways to donate or get involved, visit risse-albany.org or call 518-621-1041. RISSE is located at 715 Morris Street in Albany.