‘When I make food, I imagine it’s filling your soul’: Former refugees share stories and recipes in UNHCR cookbook

For Yasmen De Leon, making and eating Mexican food has been a connection to her roots that she and her family carry wherever they go.

Born in Mexico, the Toronto woman migrated to the United States with her family when she was four years old, moving from town to town seeking a safe refuge, before they eventually made it to Canada to find asylum in 1986.

All they had was the fond memories of their families back home — and the recipes that had been passed on orally to her mother, Josefina Martinez, by her family.

“Often times, the only thing refugees and displaced people have are their culinary heritage, the recipes you are able to hand down and teach to younger generations,” says De Leon, 43, owner of Comal y Canela, a Mexican restaurant in Toronto.

“You may have just the clothes on your back. You have no pictures, no mementoes and nothing. You are in a new country trying to recreate the bread, the soups and stews from back home. I was able to know my grandmother and great-grandmother through their recipes. That’s all I have of my family and extended family: these recipes.”

De Leon’s story and recipes are part of a cookbook published by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Canada to mark the refugee agency’s 70th anniversary.

Established on Dec. 14, 1950, to assist displaced people in Europe after the Second World War, the agency was initially given a three-year mandate to complete its work. But decades later, not only has the work not concluded, but its mandate now covers more than 80 million victims of displacement this year alone, including 29.6 million refugees.

Titled “Tastes from Home: Recipes from the Refugee Community,” the free digital book features more than 30 recipes and personal stories from 14 former refugees, including current federal minister Ahmed Hussen and former Governor General of Canada Adrienne Clarkson.

“Food represents more than just nourishment. It symbolizes sharing of tradition, culture and creating treasured memories over family dinners, festive gatherings and other important occasions,” says UNHCR Canada spokesperson Lauren La Rose.

“As we approach the holidays, people will likely be preparing special meals or dishes as part of that family tradition. We hope that people will be encouraged to not only try these recipes but to learn a bit more about the journeys and the people who created them.”

Tamale is a signature dish Yasmen De Leon, a former refugee from Mexico, would like to introduce to Canadians

De Leon’s family fled violence in Mexico in the early 1980s for the U.S., where they remained undocumented before arriving in Toronto for asylum. Due to a six-year-long asylum backlog, her father brought the family back to Mexico, hoping that the trouble had subsided. He was murdered just months after their return in 1990.

With five children in tow, De Leon’s widowed mother begged the Canadian embassy to let them back to Canada. They were refused because they had already abandoned their claim. Desperate to find safety, she drove back to the U.S. and stayed briefly before sneaking back into the country.

In the U.S., the family survived on the food stamps dispensed to two of the youngest children, who were born there and are American citizens.

After resettling in Toronto, Martinez worked shifts in factories to support her young family. The family finally got permanent residence in Canada on humanitarian and compassionate grounds.

Martinez had always wanted to open a family restaurant here, a dream that De Leon made happen in 2017.

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