When brother-in-laws Steven Achiam and Brendan Killeen held Christmas with their families last year, they were joined by a special guest – Ali, a child asylum seeker from Afghanistan.
Achiam, a photojournalist, had met Ali in Greece earlier in the year and they stayed in touch as he travelled up through Europe to Norway. Ali now spoke some Norwegian, but there were still some communication difficulties.
That is, until they got talking about food.
“Ali and my son figured out that their favourite dishes were both made with lamb,” Killeen recalls. “My son then asked if the sheep get to roam free on the mountains in Afghanistan like they did in Ireland, where I’m from, and Ali said yeah of course. He then wrote down the recipe for us.”
A few months later, Achiam and Killeen were talking about the encounter and came to the decision to make a cookbook using recipes provided by child refugees such as Ali.
“We started talking about what a good idea it would be to get out there and get recipes from kids inside asylum centres and just take a whole different angle on the asylum debate,” says Killeen, who is originally from Ireland and is a journalist by trade.
With the support of the Danish Red Cross Youth, Achiam and Killeen visited refugee centres across the country to meet child refugees and collect their stories and recipes for their favourite food (called ‘liv ret’ in Danish). It wasn’t an easy process, however.
“We needed translators and permission from their parents. Often the children would get moved between asylum centres, or even deported. Some would say yes initially then change their minds. At some point we wondered whether we would get 25 stable people for the book,” says Killeen.
They succeeded, however, and in November released Liv Ret (Food for Thought), which is divided into three parts – a recipe book (Taste!), an interview book (Listen!), and a book of portraits of the children together with their own illustrations (Look!).
“On the one hand it’s not a political book, but of course there’s political angle because people think they are reading a cook book when actually they are reading about these kids and their circumstances. We didn’t want to compromise the children or families. We took some of the sensitive stuff out of it, and focused on the food and their memories of home and left it at that,” says Killeen, adding that the Red Cross checked all the material thoroughly before it was published.
The recipes are drawn from Ghana to Somalia, and Chechnya to Kuwait, but weren’t always easy to make sense of. So they brought in a chef to translate the recipes into easy to follow instructions. Still, some recipes were impossible to follow faithfully, simply because not all the ingredients are available in Denmark.
“It was funny to see the reactions of the children when when we couldn’t get the ingredients that they took for granted. Some of this stuff would grow in their garden, but you couldn’t find it here in a shop. It is these perspective which are different. Our target audience is middle-of-the-road Danes who don’t get to meet or think about refugees. So hopefully we can get them to drop their guard and think about asylum seekers a little differently through food.”
Liv Ret costs 350 kroner. Profits go to the Danish Red Cross Youth.
Kost, Sønder Blvd. 52, 1720 Copenhagen V
Riccos Kaffebar, Hauserplads 30, 1127 Copenhagen K
Thiemers Magasin, Tullinsgade 24, 1618 København V