When Pamela Gregory started teaching English to refugees in a camp in Samos, Greece, she noticed that one subject would always come up.
“We had this conversation about Qabuli pilau—which is pilau that comes from Kabul,” she remembers over coffee on a bright, cold Tuesday in London, a day before she is set to return to the camp. “I said, ‘Well, how do you make it then? and Fazana [a refugee in the camp] explained and somebody down the other end said, ‘No, you don't make it like that! That's rubbish! No, no, you've got to put onions in it,’ and then another person says, ‘Oh, we put green beans is ours.’”
“These conversations are so typical,” she continues, “but what they don't realise is that while they're having these conversations, they're losing all their inhibitions.”
In the Eastern Aegean Sea, on the Island of Samos, lies the second largest refugee camp in Greece—and it's here that Gregory listens to debates about whether to put green beans in Qabuli pilau or if you should add chestnuts or walnuts to an Algerian pastilla. Originally set up in 2016 to accommodate the massive number of political migrants from mostly Northern Africa and the Middle East, the camp is now struggling to offer shelter to all its inhabitants. While it was originally only meant to house around 700 (in an old Greek prison), Gregory believes the number of inhabitants is now close to 5,000. Tents sprawl into the neighbouring forests for lack of space, causing hostility between locals and refugees.
The situation—and the state of the camp—is undeniably bad. A recent article in The Times unambiguously titled, “Stench of human misery overwhelms Greek island resort,” explains that “the air is heavy with the smell of 4,000 unwashed bodies, human ordure, rotting rubbish, and smoke from wood, plastic or other detritus burnt for warmth.” Gregory, who volunteers with an organisation called Samos Volunteers, located in a building ten minutes from the camp, confirms this.
“The camp is horrendous,” says Gregory. “It’s awful.”
“It's not only bad where they're living but what they've had to endure to get there in the first place—maybe lost family members or children en route with drownings,” she continues. “People have this kind of picture of refugees being economic migrants; people who don't have a lot of money being displaced just because of financial reasons. But these are journalists, doctors, lawyers, teachers, business owners, bus drivers, and dinner ladies.”
“The people are ordinary people like we are, and they're living like animals and they think nobody cares,” explains Gregory, and then pauses. “And a lot of the time, nobody does. It's heartbreaking.”
Despite the difficult living conditions, lack of resources, and language barriers, discussion of food is lively amongst Samos’ inhabitants. Not only the lack thereof—most refugees must survive on rations distributed by the Greek government—but of beloved dishes from their less turbulent pasts. This gave Gregory an idea: to create a cookbook featuring those dishes, with 100 percent of the profits from its sales going back to the camp, via Samos Volunteers.
“As a way of teaching English, I would start conversations about food,” says Gregory. “I said to one of the co-ordinators one day, 'It would be great to write a cookbook because there's so much brilliant food.' [The idea] just grew from there.”
So, Gregory started collecting the recipes. She would listen to people passionately tell her about their memories of misir wot, a lentil dish from Djibouti, or wait as they rang their mothers back home to ask about the right type of bread for a fattoush salad. She would write down the ingredients and method while in the camp, and then test them when she returned to the UK. Alongside Greg Oke, another former Samos Volunteers worker who co-edited the recipes and took photos of the dishes, plus a selection of other facilitators, designers, and recipe testers, they created the cookbook Displaced Dishes.
The cookbook contains 30 recipes, each one donated by a resident of the Samos refugee camp. The dishes originate from Syria to Kurdistan to Palestine, with beautiful photos to accompany each entry. There are familiar recipes, like kofta (provided by Mansour, from Egypt) or spiced chickpeas (Zaha from Iraq), as well as less well-known dishes such as laxoox, a spongey pancake bread (Djamila from Djibouti) or dibs tahini, a kind of tahini soup (Rania from Kuwait).
Gregory takes my copy of Displaced Dishes and flips to the dessert section at the back. She points to a recipe for “The Sultan’s shortbread,” provided by Ruth from Palestine, and says that it's her favourite. “Do you like sweet things?” she asks, passing the book back to me. “You have got to try this. This is the business.”
Adams, another refugee who donated a dessert recipe to the book, tells me over the phone from Greece that he shared his recipe for vitumbua mcele—small, sweet, or savoury African pancakes—because it reminded him of home. Adams arrived at the camp from Burundi, a country that in 2018 was named the least happy nation in the world according to a UN’s World Happiness Report.
“I chose that [recipe] because it is something I grew up eating every morning,” he tells me from Athens, having now been moved from the Samos camp to the second stage of his asylum appeal. “I'd eat it every morning when I wake up before going to school.”
Although the vitumbua mcele seems more like a sweet breakfast meal, Adams explains that it’s quite versatile: “We eat it with tea or coffee, then also with yoghurt. Sometimes with a soup, but not a vegetable soup, but with tomato, garlic, and onion.”
“It is something special for me [as] my mum would make it,” he adds.
Clearly, the recipes in Displaced Dishes hold great importance to the refugees, so I ask Gregory about how she sees this manifest in the camp.
“Their food is part of their heritage and their memories,” she tells me. “I remember Ali who donated the [garlic] mash potatoes recipe. It's his first memory of being at home with his mum, who's died. It just brings back these memories of home, and at the moment there's no way they can make stuff like that because they have no cooking facilities, no the money to buy the ingredients, so they just keep living on their memories.”
“A lot of the time they feel rootless,” says Gregory, “that their identities are slipping away.”
The memory of food—both the comfort it provides and its heritage—is grounding for those who have been in Samos for months, living in makeshifts tents while their sense of selfhood is eradicated by the dehumanising conditions they live in literally, and politically, every day. The promise of a hot muhammara dish with their family could be years away—if it is possible at all.
“The memories that keep them going are the memories of them growing up and the happier times with their families,” Gregory continues. “It's just kind of fundamental to who they are and where they came from.”
Sometimes, remembering these dishes, arguing over their ingredients, and telling those stories is as close as the refugees will get to home.
Before I say goodbye, I ask Adams if he hopes to one day make vitumbua mcele again.
“Yes, maybe,” he says, with a tone of weariness, explaining that it can be hard to source the correct rice flour or frying pan for the dish.
“I haven't been able to make it since I left my home,” he adds, sighing. “I miss it a lot.”