With the hope of a better life, five Eritrean women left everything they knew behind them for a new start. They all fled their homeland to escape war and conflict, coming to the U.S. for freedom. Some came with their families while others made the trip alone.
Recently these women, who are all refugees now living in a refugee community in Bridgeport, cooked a traditional Ethiopian and Eritrean dinner and served it to members of the First Congregational Church in Darien.
The women have all been resettled by CIRI (Connecticut Institute for Refugees and Immigrants), a nonprofit agency headquartered in Bridgeport that provides legal and social services to immigrants and refugees in Connecticut to help them become self-sufficient, integrated, and contributing members of the community, according to CIRI.
They prepared the meal as part of CIRI’s Ethnic Eats program, which provides an opportunity for them to earn money and share their cuisine.
“The purpose of the dinner is to help the women earn a little bit of extra money for their efforts, to raise awareness of the plight of refugees, and to demonstrate that people all over the world share a fundamental desire — to eat a good meal,” said Gary Holmes, who serves on the outreach board at the church and is a board member of CIRI.
The event, which was sold out, drew 90 people, and cost $50 a ticket.
The menu that evening included doro wat, a spicy stew made with chicken, berbere sauce, eggs, onions and tomatoes; gomen, which is made from kale, collard greens, spinach and garlic; and himbasha bread, which is made from flour, fennel seeds and raisins.
Aside from preparing the dinner, the women performed a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony, where they prepared coffee over an open flame.
According to Claudia Connor, president and CEO of CIRI, coffee is a very important element of the social interaction in the Eritrean culture. “The preparation and pouring and providing the coffee to the people are done with great intention and care,” she said.
A significant percent of the proceeds from tickets went to the Eritrean women, according to CIRI.
As part of the organization’s refugee resettlement program, all five woman arrived in the U.S. over the past three years, settling in a refugee community in Bridgeport. Most of them have jobs at local supermarkets and restaurants.
This was the first time that the Darien church hosted the event, and the third time the women have cooked a meal as part of CIRI.
Connecticut Institute for Refugees
CIRI resettles 50 to 100 refugees a year. Most come from Africa, according to Jessica Suarez, director of strategic partnerships and communications for CIRI.
Eritrea is a small country above Ethiopia. The native language spoken there is Tigrinya.
About 40% of CIRI is funded by federal grants and 36% by private foundations and individual contributions. The remainder is generated by CIRI’s immigration legal services program, Suarez said.
According to Suarez, people flee their native country for multiple reasons, including persecution on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity, membership in a social group, and political opinion.
The women who prepared the meal at the church fled to the United Nations in the Sudan, where they applied for, and received, refugee status.
They must go through a minimum of five different security screenings to attain refugee status, according to Suarez.
It’s a “very tough” screening and vetting process, she added.
Once people become refugees and entered the United States, CIRI finds them a place to live and a job, and helps get their children into school.
Every year, the president determines the number of refugees who can come to the U.S., according to Suarez. Currently, 30,000 refugees are allowed to enter.
“The refugees come here with status. They are on the path to citizenship,” she said.
Interview with Aida F.
Aida F. is one of the Eritrean refugees who prepared the dinner at the Darien church. She has been in the U.S. for 18 months and lives in Bridgeport. She’s employed at the deli counter at Stop & Shop, and also works as an interpreter.
While preparing the meal for the church dinner, Aida sat down with The Darien Times to answer some questions. She said she left her country because of “politics and government.”
“Ethiopia and Eritrea have been in conflict for many years,” she said. “In my country, they spy on you.”
She said she has gained so much after coming to the U.S. “First, I got freedom,” she said. “No one is bothering me.”
“I’m managing myself. I have security,” she added.
One adjustment for her has been the “unpredictable” weather in Connecticut. “I had no experience of snow. I saw snow through movies,” she said. “There is no snow in Africa.”
One winter day in 2017, Aida’s supervisor at Stop & Shop took her outside the store so she could see and feel snow for the very first time in her life. “He asked me to put her hand out and touch it,” Aida said. “I felt happy. I like the snow.”
Aida said she enjoys getting the chance to have others sample her native dishes. “It’s our culture to share with other people,” she said.
“Thank you, CIRI,” she said, adding, “They treat us like a family. They have given us a good opportunity.”
According to the Rev. Dale Rosenberger, senior minister at the First Congregational Church, the church has “a heart for mission and outreach.”
“One of the vital issues of our time is the fate of immigrants and refugees,” Rosenberger said.
He added that many people assume “immigrants and refugees are going to come and take what they have. That’s the fear.”
However, he said that “These people want to work,” adding they worked for two days cooking in the church’s kitchen to create the dinner.
“They don’t want a handout. They want a hand up. All they need is the smallest opening of opportunity and they will make the most of it. In our partnership with CIRI, we are able to create opportunity.”
“They left everything familiar so they could have a shot at a new life,” Rosenberger said. “They ask for very little. They are willing to give a lot.”
For more information on CIRI, visit cirict.org.