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Refugee chefs are changing Milwaukee’s culinary landscape

March 30, 2019 GMT
In this Feb 2019 photo, Abebech Jima, who moved to Milwaukee from Ethiopia three years ago, works with chef Greg Leon, left, to prepare a meal for Tables Across Borders in Milwaukee. A group of refugees and organizers in Milwaukee have established Tables Across Borders, which showcases Ethiopian, Rohingya, Congolese, Syrian, Karen and Serbian cuisines. They formulated a plan to hold six dinners with meals prepared by refugee chefs from February through April. (Sue Vilet/Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service via AP)
In this Feb 2019 photo, Abebech Jima, who moved to Milwaukee from Ethiopia three years ago, works with chef Greg Leon, left, to prepare a meal for Tables Across Borders in Milwaukee. A group of refugees and organizers in Milwaukee have established Tables Across Borders, which showcases Ethiopian, Rohingya, Congolese, Syrian, Karen and Serbian cuisines. They formulated a plan to hold six dinners with meals prepared by refugee chefs from February through April. (Sue Vilet/Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service via AP)

MILWAUKEE (AP) — Abebech Jima and her family came to Milwaukee from Ethiopia three years ago looking for a chance to start over.

Like many refugees seeking asylum, the family wanted to live somewhere safe and away from the life-threatening conflict tearing their country apart.

Eventually Jima and her husband, Zerihun Tadesse, connected with Kai Gardner-Mishlove, who would pick refugees up at the airport, show them their apartment and help them adjust to life in Milwaukee.

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The nonprofit news outlet Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service provided this article to The Associated Press through a collaboration with Institute for Nonprofit News.

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The newcomers would repay Gardner-Mishlove with food, a symbol of their gratitude. The meals she ate in their homes tasted better than any food she had ever eaten in a restaurant. So after experiencing many flavors, spices and dishes, Gardner-Mishlove realized that other people deserved to get a taste, too.

And Tables Across Borders was created.

“People don’t realize how diverse the refugee community is in Milwaukee,” she said. “Each culture has the soul food of that cuisine.”

Gardner-Mishlove eventually joined forces with Saehee Chang, whose mother was a refugee from North Korea and has connections in Milwaukee’s food network.

Through Chang, Gardner-Mishlove contacted several restaurant owners in Milwaukee: Greg Leon from Amilinda; Christie Melbye-Gibbons from Tricklebee Café; and Caitlin Cullen from The Tandem.

Together, they formulated a plan to hold six dinners with meals prepared by refugee chefs who identified as Ethiopian, Rohingya, Congolese, Syrian, Karen and Serbian.

The restaurants set up a schedule: Amilinda would have Ethiopian cuisine on Feb. 25 and Syrian cuisine on April 8; The Tandem would have Rohingya cuisine on March 11 and Serbian cuisine on May 13, and Tricklebee would have Congolese cuisine on March 25 and Karen cuisine on April 29.

When word got out, all dinners, priced at $60 each, were sold out.

Tables Across Borders hopes to continue showcasing refugee chefs. In the future, it plans to partner with additional restaurants that wish to host a pop-up dinner.

Jima, who prepared the meal for the first Tables Across Borders event, said through food, people feel encouraged to share and forge connections.

“Food is the best way to communicate your idea or your problem,” she said.