Crossing Borders at Chefugee Ukraine

We often forget that every individual we come across carries with them a profound history we have yet to find out. As the refugee crisis becomes a topic in everyday conversations around the world, it can become just that for those of us not immediately affected- a daily, mundane situation. But it is far from mundane and it lies closer to home than we realize.

Chefugee’s third pop-up dinner once again shattered taboos and crossed the borders of geography and culture, bringing together a mix of people from at least twelve different countries to share a delicious, homemade meal.

It was my first Chefugee dinner and I wasn’t sure what to expect. I happened upon a blog post about Madrid for Refugees (MFR) and their project Chefugee this past summer. It also happened to coincide with my researching my grandmother’s history: her childhood during the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong during WWII and, years later, her subsequent move to the United States in search of a better life. I immediately reached out to be updated about the next dinner, interested in meeting people whose stories were like those of my grandmother.

This night, the two chefs sharing their culture and heritage were Natalia Tsivenko and Natalia Oleksovych from Ukraine, assisted by Syrian chef Khaled al-Dieri. With contagiously bright smiles, they cooked without stopping, clearly pouring all of their hearts into their food.

Chefs Natalia Tsivenko and Natalia Oleksovych
Chefs Natalia Tsivenko and Natalia Oleksovych

Guests began arriving early, and while not everyone knew each other, the energy and environment were warm and welcoming. Strangers though we were, we were all united in the cause of helping these individuals to establish their lives in their new home.

With everyone having arrived, guests soon sat down to dinner. After a brief introduction and explanation as to what MFR and Chefugee were about, the “chefugees” introduced themselves and invited everyone to dig into the dishes that they shared were a part of their daily lives.

The energy was high as everyone settled into their chairs and conversations. Being able to meet people from so many different backgrounds was fascinating. As a traveler, I enjoy hearing other people’s stories and personal experiences. In spite of the tragedies going on in certain parts of the world, being able to come together with people we may not meet under normal circumstances and have an opportunity to dialogue with, made me realize that these Chefugee dinners have many facets to them.

Homemade Ukrainian dishes
Homemade Ukrainian dishes

The primary facet is clearly helping the refugees establish their lives here, to support them in adjusting to an entirely new culture and environment. It allows them to share their stories, and it allows guests to hear their stories. The dinners also raise awareness of what is happening in our world. The overarching theme that ties it all together – it reminds us all of our shared humanity.

After dinner, the Natalias once again came out and shared the stories of their flight to Spain. It was incredible to me, after hearing their stories of absolute courage and perseverance, that despite what they’ve been through, they still managed to have the brightest smiles of anyone in the room. Not only this, but the ability and strength to share their stories so openly, made me realize how brave these women truly are.

Dessert soon followed, but not before many guests warmly embraced both chefs for sharing their food and histories. While it was clear to see the dinner was an absolute success, as the evening came to a close, it was joyful to see everyone saying goodbye as if they were old friends.

Guests at Chefugee
Guests at Chefugee

About the Author
Nina Lee is a chocolate loving, Nichiren Buddhist. Her lifelong goal is to live a creative and enchanted existence, as she travels the world penning stories about her experiences and the people she meets along the way. With the hope of inspiring us all to return to our naked humanity, she shares her stories on her blog WorldintoWords.

[Photography: Jane Mitchell]