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Community dinners in Ledyard share cuisine, culture

About three months ago, a half dozen refugee women were cooking dessert for a community meal at St. David’s Episcopal Church, when oil spilled in the oven and set off the smoke alarm.

Gales Ferry firefighters responded to the church. But when they arrived, it didn’t smell like a fire at all — more like baklava. They had to evacuate temporarily due to smoke, although the cook didn’t want to leave her dessert.

The firefighters asked, “What are you cooking? It smells so good...”

The women cook for Start Fresh Kitchen, a program created by the all-volunteer humanitarian resettlement group known as Start Fresh, which co-sponsors families through New Haven-based Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services. The New London group has co-sponsored four families so far.

Start Fresh began as a faith-based initiative with the Greater New London Clergy Association, but it has grown and now includes partners such as the local Rotary clubs, which have provided donations and volunteers.

The Start Fresh Kitchen began in September to help refugee family members gain practical skills they can use to find employment, provide a modest income from meal ticket sales and share their culture with the community. One man and several women from local families cook.

The program serves dinners for 100 people on the first Friday of every month, with the next meal at 6:30 p.m. on Dec. 1 at St. David’s Episcopal Church, 284 Stoddard’s Wharf Road, Gales Ferry. Tickets are $25 per person, and cover ingredients and a modest wage for the cooks. The meal starts with baba ghanoush (an eggplant dish), hummus, pita bread and a salad, then offers a buffet of six to seven dishes and a dessert. Tickets are available at and doors open at 6 p.m.

Zainab Hbaish, 31, cooks in the kitchen. Hbaish, her husband and their four children, ages 2 to 12, moved here from a refugee settlement in Turkey in January. Prior to Turkey, they lived in Aleppo, Syria, where hundreds of civilians have died under Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime.

Hbaish came here from Turkey because her daughter is physically disabled and she heard about the medical care here, she said through interpreter Sarah Faraj. Hbaish’s daughter, 9, just took her first steps with a walker recently.

Faraj said Hbaish “likes working in Start Fresh so she can help her husband with the money because she can’t really work outside home because she has a daughter with a disability.” Her husband works nights at Mohegan Sun.

It takes about 12 hours to prepare for, cook and clean up after a Start Fresh Kitchen meal, said Amna Azhag, 33, who is originally from Sudan. She, her husband and their four children, ages 5 to 14, have been here for about 15 months, she said through an interpreter. Her husband also works at Mohegan Sun.

She’s used to cooking for big gatherings as part of her culture, she said. She’s taking English classes five mornings a week at New London Adult Education, and cooking classes three days a week. With the skills she’s learning, she hopes to work in a restaurant, college or high school kitchen or cafeteria, she said.

Both women said the New London group has made them feel at home, welcomed and like part of a family.

Mary Edgerton of Noank, a volunteer with Start Fresh, said the refugee families also have much to offer.

“It’s fabulous that this small corner of the state has an opportunity to learn about different cultures," she said.  "I can’t imagine what these people have been through, and it feels good to be able to help them with their new lives.”

If you go

WHAT: Start Fresh Kitchen refugee dinners

WHERE: St. David's Episcopal Church, 284 Stoddard's Wharf Road, Gales Ferry

WHEN: At 6:30 p.m. the first Friday of each month; the next one is on Dec. 1

HOW MUCH: Tickets are $25 per person



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