It's a balmy evening in late May in Berlin's Schöneberg area, and 29-year-old Reza is busy with preparations for dinner. Occasionally, he stirs the pot in which he boils chunks of beef while the rising steam clouds his face. A lengthy dining table—lined with trays of vegetables, cutting boards, and knives—leads up to his stove.
He is the star chef of the evening, in a cooking class conducted by the organization Über den Tellerand ("Looking Beyond the Plate") that works with refugees. It's a chance for refugees like Reza, with a flair for cooking, to share recipes from their homeland with Berliners once a month. Today Reza will teach attendees how to cook a three=course meal with recipes from the Herat province of western Afghanistan, closer to Iran, where his family hails from.
Last year, the world watched in awe as more than a million refugees from crisis-hit Syria, Afghanistan, and North African countries arrived in Germany. The country isn't as new to the concept of immigration as one would believe. In the 1950s, Germany harboured workers from neighbouring countries to cope with the labour shortage during the Wirtschaftswunder—the economic miracle—in which the country witnessed rapid industrial development.
However, things are different now.
The exodus of refugees arriving in Germany, fleeing their war-torn homelands, has sparked debates on their integration into German society. Being the open society that it is, Germany and most of its citizens are doing their best to assist with integration and assimilation of refugees. Berliners Rafael Strasser and Lisa Thaens started the social enterprise Über den Tellerrand in 2013. Each month, they offer cooking classes and pop-up restaurants conducted by refugees or asylum-seekers like Reza, who hope to make Germany their home.
Lisa discovered Reza when she was putting together their stall at a street festival in Berlin-Hellersdorf. "We were painting our name on the floor with chalk and Reza saw it and asked, 'Kochen?' ["cooking"] and told us that he loved cooking. Then we got into conversation and invited him to the social impact lab, where we worked at that time. Not long afterward, he lead his first own cooking class and is an active member of our community ever since," says Lisa.
The participants of the evening are largely local Germans, keen to spend an evening learning recipes from a distant land. Tine, an artist and mother of three, works with refugee children and says she has plans to introduce cooking classes as part of her classroom projects. The couple Ralf and Melanie, who are fostering 13-year-old Bahram from Afghanistan, felt the boy had no connection with his home country and this evening would be a good way to achieve that. Vanessa, whose work involves identifying locations for nuclear waste in Germany, loves learning about different foods and cultures.
After briefly explaining the menu that consists of lentil soup, an eggplant stew called gorme badenjan served with rice and beef, and saffron pudding for dessert, Reza swiftly starts distributing tasks: Slice the eggplants; thinly julienne the carrots, matchstick size; chop the onions; you haven't seen whole garlic like this? Welcome to Berlin. Taking the lead in his apron, he seems to be at ease, engaging in a friendly banter with the participants, flaunting his recently acquired German language skills. "Reza just loves cooking and inviting friends over. As a cook, he feels like a host and this makes him happy," says Lisa.
His toothy smile and sunny disposition belie the seven years of arduous hardship he faced to enter Germany. Raza left his home when he was 21. His first stop from Afghanistan in Europe was Greece, where he worked and raised money to get to Netherlands. He eventually did arrive in the Netherlands, but his European dreams were soon dashed. Upon entering the country, he was imprisoned for 14 months and was eventually deported back to Afghanistan. Subsequent attempts to get back to Europe brought him to Germany, where he is now slowly being integrated into its society. He recently passed his German language tests and is already fluent in the language, a crucial step if you're going to live in the country.
Although he enjoys cooking, Reza is not a professional cook nor does he have ambitions to continue in gastronomy. "It is a very stressful profession with long working hours. I do not like to do it full time," Reza says. What he likes is making shoes, for which he trained while growing up.
After two successful years, Über den Tellerand now has a more permanent place from which to operate. The KitchenHub, the community kitchen where the cooking classes are conducted, was created in cooperation with the architectural department of the Technische Universität Berlin. "An international and intercultural group of students and refugees designed, created, and built this community kitchen. We see it as the home of our diverse community, where everyone has the chance to contribute with ideas," Lisa says.
In the past few years, this exercise has yielded a hugely successful cookbook, Recipes for a Better Us, with recipes offered by refugees from various ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Reza's recipes are included in the book. "The book has sold 9,000 copies so far," Lisa states. A second cookbook, A Pinch of Home, will be published in September this year.
After the cooking is complete, Reza peppers the dinner table conversation with snippets of culinary traditions from Afghanistan. "The rice always needs to be chewy—three hours of soaking and ten minutes of cooking will do the job. Men like chewing rice in Afghanistan," he recalls over laughter from his guests.
After years of travelling dangerously, seeking a better life, and living in shelters in adverse conditions, Reza can safely call Germany home now. But sometimes, a kind of wistfulness for the land he left behind creeps in. He turns to his stove to quell the yearning. Is there any ingredient that he misses while cooking Afghan food? "I couldn't find okra in Berlin," Reza says rolling his blue gray eyes with a smile.
Turns out, not everything is perfect, but Berlin comes as close as possible.