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Jemila Saleh in her kitchen in Potsdam. Photo: Natasha Haverty
Jemila Saleh in her kitchen in Potsdam. Photo: Natasha Haverty

Eritrean refugee finds home in cooking

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Eritrea is a small country in the African Horn. It's been at war on and off with neighboring Ethiopia for decades. And since 2001, the government has been sending thousands of its citizens to prison for being a part of any faith group that isn't on the government's approved list of churches.

Jemila Saleh is sure she would have been sent to prison for her beliefs, if it hadn't been for a series of what she calls miracles. Just after her pastor was imprisoned, Jemila connected with a church here in the North Country, and they offered to support her escape. So in the middle of the night Jemila packed up all she could, and got on airplane with her three daughters. Members of the church picked them up at the Syracuse airport with a backseat full of blankets and winter coats, and brought them to their new apartment in Potsdam, which the church members had rented and furnished.

Four and a half years later, Jemila has a degree in finance from SUNY Canton, her daughters are in school, and Jemila is practicing her faith freely here. But the way she's kept a grip on her life, and her story, is through cooking.

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An electric mogogo. Photo: Natasha Haverty A typical Eritrean meal: piles of injera and pots of tsebhi, or stews, to eat with it. Photo: Natasha Haverty Jemila Saleh. Photo: Natasha Haverty

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Natasha Haverty
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It’s a cold November morning. Jemila Saleh stands in front of her kitchen sink, lit up by a stream of sunlight. Her hair’s tied back and she wears an army green hoodie and a long plaid skirt. Three little pots bubble on the stove. "I don’t have anything I enjoy like I cook," she says. "Cooking for me makes me relax." 

This kitchen looks nothing like the one Jemila grew up in. She landed in this apartment four and a half years ago from Eritrea as a refugee. Before Jemila and her three daughters arrived, members of the two churches in Potsdam that supported her escape furnished this apartment and filled the fridge with casseroles. On the wall above the sink, someone has typed out instructions on how to use the garbage disposal.

But one kitchen appliance betrays the fact that this is definitely an Eritrean kitchen: On the counter is an electric mogogo. It’s a black clay hot plate that Jemila makes all her bread on. The bread is called injera, and it’s the foundation of any Eritrean meal. After a month of being in the North Country, Jemila got the mogogo and decided it was time to start cooking the food she loves.

"So when I start cooking injera it’s big relief for me it’s like wow, after all I get it," Jamela says. "And I feel home also: the smell of warm, fresh injera."

Jemila makes injera out of three ingredients: teff flour, water, and salt, which she lets ferment together for three days before she spreads it over the hot mogogo. What comes out is a spongy pancake.

She’s used to funny looks when she offers new friends a piece of the bread she grew up with.

"When they try it the taste is sour. They don’t like it the first time, but the next time the second time they try it, they love it."

She quickly makes a tomato and avodado salad, some hibiscus tea to drink, and brings the three pots over from the stove, which she calls the sauces. "This one is cabbage sauce, I make it with onion, balsamic vinegar, and oil. And this one is lentil sauce, same thing with onion, tomato, salt, garlic. And this one is red sauce, beef with hot powder, and butter."

And the basket of injera isn’t just the starch of this meal: it’s the plate, and it’s the utensils. She covers her plate with a few triangles of injera, then adds a little scoop of each sauce and the salad. She rips off pieces of more injera to pick up each bite The injera at the bottom is the last thing she eats.

When Jemila arrived here, she had no money, but she did know how to cook. That, she says, was what she could give back to the people who helped get her here, and how she forms a lot of her friendships. 

"Not only when you have something you share with somebody," she says. "Whatever little or big you have, just share it."

On the walls around us are photographs of her and her family back at home.

"All my life is there. I  was born there, I grow up there, I miss it a lot. But still I have good life here also, I cannot get it there. So sometimes you miss something, but you have to move on also, you have to make friends here." 

Back in Eritrea, her neighbors would gather together every evening to talk about their days, to laugh, and tell stories. Here, she says, it’s not as effortless bringing people together. "In Eritrea we have too much social life, here we have no social life. But I see here people have everything, but they don’t realize how to share it."

Just this summer. Jemila’s started to sell her injera at local markets, and eventually she’d like to sell the sauces. And as long as she’s cooking, she says, she’s home.

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