My family and I started our resettlement journey in 2009, six years into the US invasion of Iraq. I was 19 years old and was attending university classes in Baghdad when extremist groups targeted my university and made it impossible to continue my higher education.
In 2010, a gleam of hope arose when I was awarded a scholarship to continue my studies at a US college and earned my bachelor's degree in political science. Throughout my time as a student in the US, I noticed how cooking Iraqi meals connected me to my family and culture. Dolma, biryani and maqlouba were all traditional Iraqi meals I invested my time into learning. Long phone calls with my mother and many shopping trips were made so I could recreate the taste, aroma and feel of food from home, and share it with friends from all over the world. This tradition continued as I recognised its value and the role it played in my cultural identity.
Food in our community is how we show our hospitality. But more than that, it is a way to show that you have something to contribute. I witnessed this in 2014 when I returned to Iraq and worked with displaced families in camps and informal settlements in Kurdistan who were affected by the violence in the region.
I initiated the "bread project" - a fundraiser to help the displaced families with essentials including food, winter items and hygiene kits. With many families only able to access a limited supply of food and parents going hungry to feed their children bread, it represented hope, dignity, and respect. Families in refugee camps would often usher you into their tent and take great pride in cooking and serving you the most delicious meals.
I have seen first hand how food and its memory can represent comfort and safety in times of displacement. In 2003, when the US troops entered my home city Baghdad, we were all forced to seek refuge in our ancestral village in the north. At the age of 13, I was completely unaware of the ramifications of war and the immensity of its violence. I watched my mother cook the most delicious, intricate Iraqi meals that we would normally only cook for special occasions. Dolma was one of the meals that my mother and the other women in the family would cook together while we were in the north waiting with uncertainty about our futures.
"Dolma was one of the meals that my mother and the other women in the family would cook together while we were in the north waiting with uncertainty about our futures."
Dolma is not a simple dish, and its complexity, diverse ingredients and adaptability make it a signature dish in Iraqi cuisine. Dolma would often be cooked on occasions such as celebrating a holiday, the homecoming of a relative or large family gatherings, and sometimes at funerals; comforting the family and loved ones of the deceased. Now, it was serving an entirely new purpose. It was providing safety and connection to our home when all else was uncertain.
In 2016, when the threat of the extremist groups reached our ancestral village in the north, my family and I had no choice but to seek asylum in Turkey. For the first time in my life, I saw myself as a refugee and knew that this would always be a part of my identity. With the challenges of waiting in limbo for our resettlement to Australia, we were comforted by the company of Iraqi friends, community and food. Often, we would dwell in comparisons between traditional Turkish meals and Iraqi meals, their similarity, and their origins and cultural value.
While working with NGOs that assist the Syrian refugee community in Istanbul, Syrian meals were often served with a side dish of cultural lessons about Syria and its history. I often felt privileged to have heard stories about traditional meals from Damascus and Aleppo, and their significance for the Syrian refugee community in Turkey. The women in the community felt empowered by sharing their meals and their stories. More importantly, it created a welcoming atmosphere and an opportunity to share cultures, and to start a dialogue based on commonalities rather than differences.
My family and I arrived in Australia in 2019. We were welcomed at the Sydney airport by a large crowd of friends, family and distant relatives.
We felt embraced into a little Iraqi community in Australia. As we discover Australian cultures and cuisines, we hope to contribute to it by bringing a piece of our culture through food.
We still buy Iraqi spices, we still enjoy food that tastes like home, and we still cook dolma on the hardest day.
Watch Samah and Aedah's story here: