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Flavors From Afar in LA uplifts & supports refugee communities through food

Walking into Flavors From Afar restaurant in the Little Ethiopia neighborhood, visitors are greeted instantly by an aroma of spices and herbs emanating from the kitchen, where all the chefs are refugees or asylum seekers. The smells and the decor – artworks, trinkets, spice jars and tapestries from around the world – are meant to transport diners to distant lands, through cuisine and hospitality.

Co-founder Christian Davis, beaming as customers enter, welcomes newcomers and regulars alike. He has developed personal relationships with his regulars, referring to some by name and knowing what they’re going to order the moment they step through the door.

“The opportunity of working with something that gave back to refugees and asylum seekers and indigenous individuals was very important to me,” Davis said. “Plus, I’m a big foodie, so working with food was very exciting, too.”

Through its food and hospitality, Flavors From Afar sheds light on refugees and asylum seekers by featuring cuisines from countries that have experienced a refugee crisis.

“When it comes to introducing people to a different culture, we’re finding that sometimes people have a negative perception of these cultures,” Davis said. “Food is a really great way to introduce somebody to a new place that is really positive. If it’s delicious? All of a sudden, they’re interested in everything about that country’s culture.”

As of the end of 2020, 82.4 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes and 26.4 million are refugees, according to the UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee agency. Most recently, Americans watched as thousands of Afghans fled their country after Kabul fell to the Taliban. War and political upheaval, along with climate change and the drug trade, are among the many reasons for displacement, experts say.

For many refugees, America offers a sense of safety and hope, and Flavors From Afar has given them a new opportunity to share their cultures with the world.

“I feel like this is a really original project, and it has so many people involved,” said Theo Diaz, a cook from Mexico who started at the restaurant two months ago. “I think it’s really beautiful that an organization sheds light on people who are more marginalized than most.”

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What began as a catering company became a restaurant a year and a half ago, and now Flavors From Afar has served cuisines native to 11 different countries. This month the menu features items from Lebanon, and Afghanistan, Palestine and Venezuela are among the countries they’ve featured in the past. The restaurant also serves a classic menu along with the monthly specials.

This month Flavors From Afar worked with “Mama” Lina Georges, a Lebanese chef who moved to the United States two years ago. She and her son created the new menu.

Each month, they give 5% of their earnings to organizations that support refugees from that month’s featured country.

“All our chefs are refugees,” Davis said. “None of them were really professionally or academically trained, they just have these long time family recipes that they’re really willing to share with us.”

Sonia Ortiz, 63, a Guatemalan, is one of the older chefs in the kitchen, and she’s coming up on two years with Flavors From Afar.

“I feel very good here because I didn’t think I had an opportunity to learn and cook at my age,” Ortiz said. “The chefs gave me the opportunity to be part of a team.”

Visitors should come hungry: the portions of every meal are large to replicate the comforts of a home cooked meal.

“When you’re going to any of these families’ homes, you know that they’ll give you so much food to make sure you don’t leave hungry,” Davis said. “We want to make sure that that message is still embodied here in our restaurant.”

Their most popular dish to date is the Somali pan-seared chicken fried rice, which has become the headliner of their classic menu. The dish features halal chicken and Somali fried rice, topped with potatoes, cabbage, carrots and onions. The chicken itself is rich with spices and sauce, but pulls perfectly off the bone with each bite.

One of the most popular Lebanese dishes among both customers and chefs alike is the Lebanese ouze, an oven roasted lamb. This meal includes two halal oven roasted lamb shanks on a bed of minced beef, rice and vermicelli pilaf, with toasted pine nuts and almonds, all served with a side of mint yogurt sauce.

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Flavors From Afar will take you to the former Soviet republic of Chechnya next month as staff members continue to support, uplift and spotlight refugees.

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Jordan Moffat/Cronkite News

Chef Sonia Ortiz prepares Somali chicken before the doors of Flavors From Afar open. At 63, the Guatemalan refugee is grateful for her opportunity at the LA restaurant.