Ukrainian refugees walk along vehicles lining-up to cross the border from Ukraine into Moldova, at Mayaky-Udobne crossing border point near Mayaky-Udobne, Ukraine, Saturday, Feb. 26, 2022.
( Sergei Grits
Brigid: This Monday is World Refugee Day, and according to the International Rescue Committee, which resettles refugees from various global crises, more than 89 million people fled their homes and countries in the last year. Among them, 14 million Ukrainians who have been displaced by the continuing wa there, a conflict contributing to a 63% increase in the global population who need humanitarian aid. Andrey Kokorin fled Ukraine with family after Russian soldiers began shelling his home city of Kharkiv.
Andrey: We all now feeling ourselves like children. We are just born to a new life. We're just hoping this awful war finishes soon.
Brigid: Feeling like children and hoping the war finishes soon. We'll hear more from Andrey later in the show, but we begin this discussion with another refugee crisis caused by the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan last August. Chef Hamidullah Noori left Afghanistan in 2015 with support from the IRC and resettled in Richmond, Virginia. He eventually opened his own Afghan restaurant, The Mantu, and now helps resettle new refugees with the help of food and Afghan culture. He joins us now. Welcome to The Takeaway, Chef Noori.
Hamidullah: Thanks so much for having me.
Brigid: What was your experience like resettling in the United States?
Hamidullah: It takes really long time to adjust yourself, to settle yourself in a new environment, a new country. I had to work hard to support the families around me. I have families in Afghanistan, I have families in India, I have families in Turkey. We have been isolated into so many countries.
Brigid: Do you feel accepted by your new community in Richmond when you got there?
Hamidullah: When I came in here, I was warmly welcomed by American people. I've been a chef since 2004. When I came to United States, I feel like the dream does come true. I couldn't believe that I can own my own restaurant in Richmond, Virginia in three, four years, which was not a part of my dream in my life. Living in Afghanistan, we live on daily basis. You never know what's going to happen to you. When I came to United States, I feel like I do have a dream list that I can work on to prove and to introduce our culture to the world.
Brigid: How much of a difference in terms of the acceptance of Afghan refugees do you see now compared when to when you resettled here in 2015?
Hamidullah: Back then, it was fine, but it wasn't as good as right now because everybody is noticing that situation in Afghanistan and every American citizens are lending hand to Afghan refugees, supporting them from basically anything they need.
Brigid: I'm wondering how your experience as a refugee helps you work with some of those who are resettling in the US since the Taliban took over?
Hamidullah: My job was to serve them the authentic dishes they used to have in Afghanistan, to help them introduce into organizations, and help them to find jobs. Young generations, they need education, they need to find their way. I was able to work with a few families that I could, based on my ability to support them and introduce them to the organizations who are resettling these refugees.
Brigid: Does your Afghan restaurant help teach Americans in your Virginia community about Afghan culture?
Hamidullah: Before I opened the restaurant, I was working in so many American and Asian restaurants. People were not familiar with Afghan cuisine at all. They always pretend that Afghan cuisine is like Indian or Mediterranean cuisine, but when I start stepping into cooking skills and adding the Afghani authentic dishes on the table, then people start finding the different taste which, since I opened the restaurant into the 2019 up to now, I feel like there is a broad change in people's thinking about Afghanistan cuisine. It's really helped a lot to introduce the culture to people.
Brigid: When did you decide to use your restaurant to feed an even higher newly settled Afghan refugees, and how did you get involved with NGOs like the International Rescue Committee to do that?
Hamidullah: When I came to Richmond, they helped me to find my job in one of the best places in Richmond. They introduced me to American citizen, they introduced me to the world. They were always coming after us and pushing us to find a job and be independent. Once I shared my story, once I shared my cooking skills, they opened so many doors for me which, without having IRC, I wouldn't consider myself to open a restaurant very soon.
Brigid: Chef, you describe the restaurant as a dream and you said it was on your dream list. What else is on that list?
Hamidullah: As an Afghan citizen, we have a bunch of dreams that are impossible to come through. We were always dreaming about having a peaceful country, a peaceful life for everyone in Afghanistan and out of the country. The dreams are all about our girls who are not going to school because of the regime has banned them not to go to school. There are thousands of dreams that we have in our lives that I wish I could see it in my lifetime. To open the restaurant was a part of my dream and to feed people. When I open the restaurant, the only concern was to serve refugees. The first meal should come from The Mantu restaurant, no matter refugee comes from any part of the world.
Brigid: How has resettling in the US affected your family, and are some of you still separated?
Hamidullah: My mother-in-law came a couple of years ago. In fact, in 2019, she came with her youngest son. Her other childrens who are over 21 years old, they were not in the list of coming to United States, and they had to leave the country because Taliban were after them. Now they're living in India and she is depressed. She has anxiety, homesickness. This is an example of one family, so there are thousands of families are facing the same. There's an engineer who works with me in the restaurant. He's managing the restaurant. His mother yesterday fainted for a couple of hours because she's away from her kids.
We have hundreds of mothers who are facing the same depression, anxiety, and feeling homesickness. When we go to doctor, they say we don't have any medicine for that. The only medicine is to just go to your home because it's a motherland, you cannot leave your land like that. I always turn off the TV. I don't want them to watch the news at all because whatever is going on in Afghanistan is not acceptable. We cannot see that anymore. It's really hard to see and imagine that how come a free country, in 20 years, our wings were barely healed that we could fly as a free bird, but I feel like something happened that our wings were broken and we were hopeless now. I don't see any future in Afghanistan since all of these challenges are taking place.
Brigid: Chef these stories are so hard, but we're really grateful that you joined us to share yours. Chef Hamidullah Noori, chef and owner of The Mantu and a refugee from Afghanistan, thank you so much for joining us.
Hamidullah: Thank you so much for having me here. Thank you.
Brigid: We turn now to the story of Ukrainian refugee Andrey Kokorin, who resettled in the United Kingdom last month with his wife and four children after fleeing the fighting there. Welcome to the show, Andrey.
Andrey: Thank you very much, Brigid.
Brigid: How long did it take to get out of Ukraine and become resettled in the UK?
Andrey: We were two months in Bulgaria, not knowing what to do next. We just escaping this bombing, having some shelter, and then we saw this opportunity to go to UK. We have applied for a visa, and after three weeks, we were here. If you count from the day we left Kharkiv, it was almost three months.
Brigid: What was traveling through Ukraine like at that time? Were there many other Ukrainians fleeing then, and did you interact much with the Ukrainian military?
Andrey: The whole trip, 2,000 kilometers from Kharkiv to Bulgaria, took us about five days. It's like 400 kilometers a day. A lot of border control guys, barricades across the roads, every small village got it. We would have to stop everywhere and they would check our passports that we are not terrorists and a lot of cars of course. So many people fled, this awful story of having children next to you and not knowing what will happen to them.
Brigid: What was the resettlement process like?
Andrey: It's a wonderful idea of UK's Government to organize sponsorship scheme. We got in touch through Facebook and we wrote that we're a family of four, and we are looking for a place to stay. Then our sponsor showed up and she said, "Yes, I have this apartment which is free and you can come and live there for half a year," and here we are living
in our own apartment and got nothing just before a months ago.
Brigid: How have you in your family settled into living in the UK, what do they think about your new home?
Andrey: Well, they're really happy. They are not so stressed as it was in Kharkiv and Bulgaria. When we came here, it was like we were back home. It's not exactly this feeling but very close. We feel ourselves safe, that what makes home your home, and we felt it from the very first day. Two of our youngest kids are already in school and two older, they visited the school and from Monday they're going to start. Kids, they like it. They really like it.
Brigid: That's great. How about finding work? Has that been a challenge?
Andrey: The most difficult thing, it's language. I'm fortunate I can speak at least a bit, but when you come and you have no language then this is the main thing. Finding the work without the language, it's difficult. I'm a builder, constructor and a furniture maker. I have 30 years of experience. For me, it wasn't a problem at all.
Brigid: There's always work for someone who can build something. Is there much of a Ukrainian community where you are now?
Andrey: It's huge, actually. More than 100 families are here.
Andrey: This is only about one city, one small city. Beautiful but small. I can imagine what it is like in the whole of the UK. I believe thousands and thousands of people all around this country.
Brigid: How do you manage hearing news about the ongoing war and are you hopeful you'll be able to return to your home at some point?
Andrey: That's what I always had and will always have. I thought of going back but I cannot force these things. It doesn't look like things are going to finish soon. For the time being, I am just living day-by-day life. I try not to think too much. I don't know what will happen next.
Brigid: Andrey Kokorin is a Ukrainian refugee who recently resettled in the United Kingdom. Thanks so much for coming on the show.
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