A Taste of Home: Nonprofits Deliver Culturally-Appropriate Food to Afghan Refugees

Feeding Chittenden and the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants are providing groceries to new arrivals to Vermont from Afghanistan

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A nonprofit partnership in Vermont is helping Afghan refugees adapt to their new lives in the United States— starting with groceries.

"I’m really enjoying being here in Vermont," said Hedayat Arya, one of a wave of refugees from Afghanistan who have come to Vermont in recent weeks and months. "We are feeling here like we are in our own home."

The new arrivals settling into the Burlington area are getting help adjusting from Feeding Chittenden, Vermont’s largest direct provider of emergency food services.

"Dry beans and rice are really, really popular,” noted Jenny Carter of Feeding Chittenden.

The nonprofit recently launched a program delivering culturally relevant foods to Afghan refugees. Meat, for example, is slaughtered under appropriate religious guidelines.

"To be able to offer boxes that aren’t so much a part of the westernized food system— it’s really nice to do that in a way where people are really going to enjoy and appreciate the food that they’re getting," Carter said.

Arya said the food boxes, which are delivered by the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, are especially vital in the first few weeks of a refugee’s arrival.

"Feeding Chittenden is doing an outstanding job, because when a new arrival is coming, initially they don’t have access to the markets," Arya said, pointing to transportation barriers and the time it takes to find your way in a new place. "It’s somehow giving a feeling to them that you are safe— that there is no food insecurity for you."

Amila Merdzanovic, who leads the Vermont field office for the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, praised the food box project and predicted this kind of neighborly embrace will really help strengthen communities, long-term.

"It really speaks to the welcoming spirit and the commitment to welcoming refugees to Vermont," Merdzanovic told NECN & NBC10 Boston. "I am certain that we are going to see Afghan-owned businesses, stores, and restaurants popping up, and I’m very excited about that."

The transition to living in Vermont, for Arya, has been emotionally wrenching. His wife and three kids are still in Afghanistan, he explained.

"I’m looking and searching to find a legal way to bring them here," Arya said, emphasizing that he hopes that can happen quickly.

Now a translator, Arya worked in his home country building schools for girls and as a contractor for the U.S. state department before the Taliban’s rapid takeover of the government made staying dangerous for him.

"In that time, I was feeling very under threat," Arya recalled.

Current headlines from Ukraine are now resonating with both Arya and Merdzanovic.

Video of Ukrainians forcibly displaced by Russia's invasion is resonating around the world, including with people who settled in New England as refugees from other war-torn countries.

"It is very heartbreaking," Arya said of video he has seen on the news showing Ukrainians forced flee their homes— as he once had to. "I came from a country where active war was going on, and the day that I left, the explosion happened. The same thing is happening in Ukraine— even Ukraine at the moment is more harsh."

Merdzanovic came to the United States as a refugee from war-torn Bosnia, in the 1990s. She also said news footage from Ukraine has been very emotional for her to watch, given her own experiences.

"I really literally can hear the noises and feel the fear and the trauma," she said. "And also the fact that people’s lives will be destroyed."

Merdzanovic called refugees "some of the most resilient people" she has known, but said it’s too soon to talk about permanently resettling Ukraine’s refugees in the United States. She explained most do want a peaceful return to their own communities.

As for Arya, he is enjoying helping others from Afghanistan find their way in the U.S. and search for jobs. He said each of the refugees from Afghanistan is grateful to have found safety in their new home.

In the case of those served by Feeding Chittenden’s new program, Arya said those people are grateful to have familiar and nutritious food on their plates.

"I would say I’m the luckiest," Arya said, smiling.

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