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The Refugees Of Capitol Hill: ‘Food Is The Great Equalizer’

Can a shared meal lead to peace in D.C.?

In January, President Trump sat at his desk in the Oval Office and signed an executive order attempting to curb the number of Syrian refugees allowed into the United States. Yet displaced people have long woven themselves into the very fabric of the neighborhoods surrounding the White House and Capitol Hill.* In this series, “The Refugees of Capitol Hill,” we share the stories, in their own words, of some of the refugees who have lived and experienced Washington, D.C., before and after the 2016 election, including a recent Afghan refugee fleeing the Taliban, an 81-year-old German refugee from World War II, and, below, the son of a Laotian refugee who has established a food delivery service featuring refugee chefs.

Noobtsaa Philip Vang

Founder and CEO, Foodhini

My parents came to the United States from Laos as refugees after the Vietnam War, in 1976. After going through refugee camps in Thailand, they settled in Chicago, then moved around a bit. I grew up in Minnesota and came to D.C. to go to business school at Georgetown.

I was just a few weeks here and craved my mom’s cooking. I wished I could find a grandma in the neighborhood who could make me some Hmong food from northern Laos. That was a time when the economy was starting to grow with Airbnb and Uber. There must be a way for people like me to connect with a home chef. I asked myself: Why didn’t that exist? That was an a-ha moment for me.

[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]She didn’t have language skills or an education, but she was a great cook.[/quote]

I thought about my mother’s story of coming here as a refugee. She didn’t have language skills or an education, but she was a great cook. And so, as part of my business school project, I started working on a model for a delivery service of foods prepared by refugees. We started beta testing in 2015 and finished by January 2017.

We’re focusing on the refugee communities here in D.C. and the potential they have. They have hopes and dreams—and food is the great equalizer. Look at the great meals that you have had. The best are at someone’s house, where you see them cooking, putting love and passion into the food. For us, that’s important. We create opportunities for the chefs, to create lives here, to provide income for them and their families. We want to recognize what they’ve come through. Creating community, connection—that’s what we’re trying to do.

We have three chefs. Our very first chef, Chef Mem, was born in the States, but at a young age moved to Southeast Asia with her mother. She grew up there, then moved back to the States to go to school. She met her husband, a Lao immigrant refugee, and they moved back to Laos. That’s where her culinary journey began. She’s a fantastic cook; every day she’s thinking up new dishes.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]We’ve seen a huge outpouring of support and excitement for what we’re doing.[/quote]

The second chef I met through my church, which is active in refugee resettlement, National Community Church. We recognize what’s going on on the political stage. And those negative things could deter us. But we haven’t had any major negative implications. What we’ve seen is a huge outpouring of support and excitement for what we’re doing. And given the motivation and inspiration, we want to keep building this out—not only serve the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia area, but expand to other cities. There are unique refugee and immigration communities everywhere. We’re building something special here.

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