Laili Hamdard, originally from Afghanistan, prepares aushak (Afghan dumplings) at New Haven’s Sanctuary Kitchen.

The sound of clattering dishes and happy banter fills the commercial kitchen on the edge of New Haven’s Fair Haven neighborhood. Women in colorful head scarves chattering in a mélange of Arabic and English are hard at work making yalanji (Syrian-style stuffed grape leaves), spicy Afghan dumplings called aushak, baklava and a plethora of other Middle Eastern delicacies.

Welcome to Sanctuary Kitchen, a project of New Haven’s CitySeed that combines food, cultural exchange and entrepreneurial training to provide refugee women with economic opportunity and assist their integration into the community.

“This is kind of a passion project for me,” says Sumiya Khan, the program’s director, who grew up in the Bay Area the daughter of Indian immigrants. “I know from my own personal experience of coming to a new country and how challenging that is when you don’t speak the language and you are possibly the only one of your kind in the city. My other passion is food. This was kind of a natural cohesion of both of these interests.”

Two years in, Sanctuary Kitchen is a smashing success. The program has exploded during that short time from about a dozen chefs to 43 — from 11 countries — and this year began bringing in enough cash to employ five of them part-time. The women, who are predominantly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, sell their wares at weekly farmers markets in New Haven, cater statewide and hold culinary events, including hands-on classes in their native cooking and baking. The program also offers a business accelerator that includes the opportunity to pitch business ideas to investors. Several chefs have already ventured out to start catering businesses or gone to work in local restaurants, administrators say.

But Sanctuary Kitchen isn’t just about food, says Amelia Reese, executive director of CitySeed, a nonprofit that promotes healthy eating and food entrepreneurship. The program also sees itself as a bridge of understanding between refugees and the larger community, Reese says, especially given rising hostility toward migrants in recent years.

“It’s sort of like culture diplomacy, using food for intercultural learning,” says Reese, a Yale School of Public Health graduate who spent six years in the Middle East working with refugees and speaks Arabic. “We’re really also trying to change hearts and minds around immigration and refugees.”

The program does that by providing an opportunity to get to know refugees and hear their stories, says Ashley Kremser, CitySeed’s director of operations. “Each dish tells their story, who they are, where they came from, what they hold dear,” she says.

Those stories are often harrowing. Taking a break from cooking, Aminah Alsaleh, 31, an otherwise bubbly, outgoing woman who recently started her own catering business, pulls up her sleeve to reveal a scar she received after a Syrian security officer hit her for refusing to hand over her son. She tells of how her husband was arrested and tortured for opposing President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. An Iraqi woman, who asked to be identified only as “M” because her children remain in Iraq, fought back tears relating how she and her husband fled their Baghdad home after he was kidnapped by Shiite militia and beaten so badly he lost a kidney. Asked why she came to the U.S., she replies through a translator that she “just wanted to be safe.”

“I love it,” a third chef, 54-year-old Mona Asweid, originally from Syria, says of Connecticut.

Sanctuary Kitchen also has refugee chefs from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, another war-torn nation, and has recently begun adding immigrants from Latin America and elsewhere. Reese paid tribute to the program’s many volunteers who help defray costs, enabling it to provide refugee chefs part-time employment.

The program is so successful that it has sparked inquiries from Hartford and Bridgeport and as far away as Texas and British Columbia about starting similar ventures, Khan says. Long-term goals? Become fully self-sustaining with the refugees running the show and helping them open more businesses.

For information on catering, events and volunteering, go to sanctuarykitchen.org.

This article appeared in the December 2019 issue of Connecticut Magazine. You can subscribe here, or find the current issue on sale hereSign up for our newsletter to get the latest and greatest content from Connecticut Magazine delivered right to your inbox. Got a question or comment? Email editor@connecticutmag.com, or contact us on Facebook @connecticutmagazine or Twitter @connecticutmag.