TEL AVIV, ISRAEL -
It looks like any other cooking class in yuppie Tel Aviv. Sleek kitchen utensils, baskets of fresh vegetables, participants sipping wine and beer. The first hint that this is a little different is the beer Asmara from Eritrea.
Yael Ravid, co-director of Kitchen Talks, explains how her cooking events make a special connection between Israelis and the Africans seeking refuge in their country.
"As we cook together shoulder to shoulder, we literally break bread, not as a metaphor but as a real happening together. I'm hoping they will enjoy the holiday feast we're preparing for the Eritrean Christmas and they will get a chance to know Asmayit, our Eritrean cook, and to ask her questions about her life, her home kitchen, how she grew up, how she came here," she says.
Chef Asmayit Merhatsion is a 30-year-old asylum seeker from Eritrea. As she chops and stirs, she tells her story, starting with her imprisonment in Eritrea.
"When I was in college I was arranging for women or girls to pray. They catched [caught] us and asked who organized? I organized. They are thinking our meeting is political but it's not political, it's religious. That's why I was in prison," she explains.
After two short stints in prison, she escaped to Sudan, then to Libya, hoping to make it to Europe. But after Europe closed its doors, she decided on Israel, paying smugglers to get her across the Sinai desert.
That was almost nine years ago. Today she is married and has a young daughter. She works for the AIDS task force. And she is a chef with Kitchen Talks to share her love for Eritrean food and culture.
"It's a vegetarian dish, five types of food we do and the traditional bread we have here I make it at home. This one is not bread it's injera, it's made of teff flour growing in Eritrea or Ethiopia…it's non gluten, its healthy, that's why we are not fat," she says.
Participants paid about $50 for the collaborative cooking event and were enthusiastic when they tasted the results. Many said it was their first time meeting with an asylum seeker and eating their exotic food.
"You can form an opinion based on things that you don't know or things that you fear. Then once, like even seeing here people interacting, and then once you know somebody, like get to know them and speak with them, and all of a sudden you're like, they're people just like me and deserve rights just like I do'," says Adi Cydulkin, a cooking class participant.
"They are here, they exist here, we can't ignore it, we should help especially the young children to become good citizens here in Israel," says Eli Levy.
Participants agreed that they will take home, not only empathy for African asylum seekers like chef Asmayit, but also some of her tasty recipes they learned tonight.