Rozina Bahliba, photo by Adam Finkle.
Rozina Bahliba came to the United States in the '80s, fleeing the second civil war for independence in her native country of Eritrea, a tiny African nation sandwiched between Ethiopia and the Red Sea.
"But when you try to run from a war, you bring the war with you," Bahliba says. We spoke in the tiny Sugar House restaurant, Red Sea, where she struggled to make ends meet serving traditional Eritrean food, until her eviction in September.
"We ran for our life. But we had another war to face here because we knew nothing."
Pregnant and penniless, she had to walk from Eritrea to neighboring Sudan to meet up with her husband who, unaware of Bahliba's pregnancy, had fled the fighting earlier, leaving instructions to meet him in Khartoum.
"The Sudanese were so kind. They took us in without any papers," she recalls. She connected with other Eritreans, but found her husband had already left for Saudi Arabia. She was alone in a strange country with a newborn baby. Bahliba found a job and a caretaker for the baby so she could work, but that was only a temporary solution while she applied for resettlement in the United States, a process that took nearly a year. Then, when she was preparing to leave, the woman who had been caring for her son did not want to let him go. "She told me I should come back for him when I was settled," says Bahliba, "but I did not want to leave without him."
As she tells it, she waited until the night before she left, then went to pick up her son, bringing some friends to back her up, and after tearful confrontations and a run-in with airport officials, left Sudan for Greece, and then, finally, the United States.
Eritrean women sell garden produce at a bazaar.
''We were herded like animals when we arrived in New York City," she remembers. But at last, a year and a half after they separated in Eritrea, Bahlabi was reunited with her son's father in Maryland. They moved to Montana, where her husband went to school, but "he was never the same," says Bahlabi. "He was overcome by sadness. He never left the war behind." The marriage foundered. Although Bahlabi says her English was still not very good, she entered the nursing program at University of Utah and moved to Salt Lake City.
"I was raised in the Coptic Orthodox religion," says Bahlabi. "It's a harsh, dark faith—everything is a sin." She wanted to find a church in her new city, but was put off by the fancy clothes and loud music she encountered in most churches she visited. "Then I met Suzanne Dyer, who is a Unitarian. She told me, 'Unitarians make me think.'" Bahlabi attended a service at First Unitarian Church, and was astonished to find a religion with the tenet "peace and justice for all." She'd found her spiritual home.
"Unitarian friends encouraged me to open a restaurant," says Bahlabi. "And they helped me open it—they painted the walls, they waited tables for free, they helped with liquor licenses and furnishings. These Unitarians are going straight to heaven, even though they don't believe in it."
Bahlabi is struggling still—her war is not won, and she has had to fight new, American battles. The son she brought from Sudan became addicted to drugs (now 32, he is in recovery). Her daughter with a Hungarian refugee, is a typical American teenager, mouthy and independent. Her restaurant recently closed. And though she has left the killing and her homeland's war behind, "I never lose the memories," she says.
She says she's like her compatriots in that way. She believes she has found a way to move forward, though, and offers this advice to other refugees, "Share your story. Share your food. Share your culture."
The roots of culture are in shared cuisine-the foods of home bind people together no matter how far they are from the land of their birth. Salt Lake's International Rescue Committee helps settle refugees in their new home in many ways, but one of the most tangible is the New Roots garden in cooperation with Salt Lake County, the Utah Refugee Coalition and Office of Refugee Resettlement.
In 2009, New Roots began by providing 20 families with plots in existing community gardens. By 2011, the program provided 143 households a place to grown their own food, in plots and in a half-acre community garden, where they work alongside English-speaking gardeners and learn about their new culture as they continue to grow their own.