Fort Worth resident Tresor Fikiri lived a different life in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He was in college working to get a degree in economics. He dreamed of becoming a mining company CEO in his country.
He often played volleyball on the beach with family and friends during his free time. Life was good, until war broke out in the 1990s.
Fikiri, 32, and his family became victims of war. Fikiri was kidnapped. He later escaped and left everything and everyone he knew behind on the night he fled to Namibia in March 2010. Eventually, he made his way to Fort Worth.
Fikiri is one of the contributors to the recently published cookbook “Plated Stories: Legacies from Home to Table.” The Refugee Services of Texas’ book showcases 22 stories and 53 recipes from refugees, survivors of trafficking and asylum seekers across the state. It features cuisines from Africa, Asia, Central America, the Middle East and Eastern Europe.
The book idea developed in September 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, when there was a lack of human connection, said Ashley Faye, senior director of development at Refugee Services of Texas. The agency wanted the book to be a bridge between the public and refugees to break stereotypes and misconceptions, Faye said.
Along with the recipes, contributors share their childhood memories and what their parents cooked for them. Fikiri shared a recipe of grilled tilapia and pilau rice his mother used to cook for their family because it is their favorite meal.
These are “things that everyone can relate to, so that we can start to overcome these barriers and see each other as more alike than different,” she said.
All profits from the book will go to the agency. The revenue will help the agency with resettlement, especially with the crisis in Afghanistan, Faye said. Large numbers of Afghans fled the country because of a rapid Taliban takeover, when the Biden administration withdrew all U.S. troops from Afghanistan in late August 2021.
The agency resettled more refugees in the last six months than the last three years combined, said Chris Kelley, the agency’s spokesperson. Between September 2021 and April 2022, Refugee Services of Texas resettled 2,594 Afghans in the state, and 490 of them resettled in Fort Worth.
Refugee Services of Texas at Fort Worth has also resettled refugees from other countries such as Sudanese, Iranian and Bhutanese. The agency resettled 596 refugees in 2016, which was the previous height of resettlement, Kelley said.
Journey to Fort Worth
Soon after war broke out, Fikiri’s mother established a humanitarian organization to defend human rights, particularly women’s rights. Women were subjected to sexual violence, Fikiri said. They are the first targets when invaders attack a city, town or village.
His mother’s advocacy brought harassment and death threats to their family. They were targeted from both sides. Armed rebel groups and government officials warned his mother to stop her activism — she did not. That eventually led to the kidnappings of Fikiri, the oldest sibling in the family.
Fikiri was kidnapped not one, not two, but three times. His family managed to get him out on the first two occasions after paying a sum of money.
Fikiri fled after his third kidnapping. He traveled four days to arrive in a refugee camp in Namibia. Two days on a boat, then two days on a bus. He stayed in the refugee camp for six years.
Fikiri grew up speaking French and Swahili, making it impossible to communicate with mostly English-speaking Namibians. He didn’t know anyone, and he felt alone. There was no opportunity to study or further his education in the camp. He did nothing while he was there, he said. His life stopped.
“Nobody has ever planned to be a refugee,” Fikiri said.
He applied for refugee status through a resettlement agency. Ultimately, he resettled in Fort Worth through Refugee Services of Texas in 2016. It was a new start for him, again. With help from the agency, he applied for a Social Security number, learned about the local culture and found a job working for Amazon.
Nitya Jain, photographer and stylist for the book, volunteered to work on the project. She said she’s honored to be a part of the project and hear contributors’ stories.
“There are so few instances in our life that we encounter people that live amongst us, and who have such interesting stories, and they’re so resilient,” Jain said. “How they celebrate being where they are with very little grievances about where they came from is pretty remarkable and humbling.”
It’s also exciting for Jain, who is from India, to have the chance to photograph food outside the generic Western cuisine.
Sheena Wendt, graphic designer for the project, also worked pro bono. She said the book serves two groups of audience: Those who love to cook and those who love human interest stories. It’s an invitation to greater humanity, she said.
“We can all be a little more vulnerable and share a little bit more of our story, and find out we have more in common,” she said.
Six years into living in the U.S., Fikiri is now a permanent resident and sees himself as a former refugee. He’s now married and is expecting a child with his wife, who he met in a church during a visit to Kansas City, Kansas, in 2018.
He’s re-enrolled in college. Not to study economics this time, but international studies to work as a humanitarian.
“I need to give back to humanity,” Fikiri said. “Humanity gave me a lot.”
Copies of the cookbook can be ordered here.
Chongyang Zhang is a summer fellow reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.