Culinary diplomacy: Supporting Afghan refugees in Tajikistan

Crackles of boiling oil, scrapes of a metal ladle against a giant iron kazan, or Tajik cookpot, and rhythmic chopping of knives on wooden cutting boards created a cacophony that could only mean a delicious meal of Tajik osh, or palov, was to come. In Tajikistan, palov is prepared by highly skilled chefs called oshpaz, who are traditionally men.

My teammate Zack Bazzi and I were at the Somoniyon Afghan Refugee School just outside of Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe, to assist with palov preparations. The dish must cook for several hours before serving, so our local partners — members of the US Embassy team, Zabondon NGO, a local advertising agency, and Max, a big-shot Tajik MC, comedian, radio host, and influencer — arrived early on a Friday morning to begin the palov preparations in the school courtyard.

This culinary display was public diplomacy at its best. Zack and US Diplomat Shefali Agrawal enthusiastically sprinkled raisins into the giant kazan as the oshpaz looked on approvingly, barking advice sparingly as I stood a couple of steps away from the sweltering heat and eye-watering smoke.

The oshpaz supervises as our Middle East Regional Director, Zack Bazzi, helps prepare the palov.

Zack helps a student prep the ingredients for the palov, a traditional Tajik dish.

Cooking palov together was not the main reason we were there that Friday morning. Spirit of America began supporting the Somoniyon Afghan Refugee School in November 2021. When the Afghan government fell to the Taliban, funding for the school of 500 Afghan refugee students ceased and it faced imminent closure. The US Embassy reached out to Spirit of America, informing us of the high priority of maintaining the school programming. As the only Dari-taught school in Tajikistan, this school met a unique and critical need for the Afghan refugee community.

Spirit of America quickly approved funding to meet the needs of the school, including operational expenses, rent, transportation for students, minor renovations, and internet accessibility. Six months after the initial need was identified, it was time for a visit to the school to see the impact of our support.

With the palov simmering under the oshpaz’s watchful eye, the rest of the group paid a visit to the school principal, Ms. Nojia Zohir. Communicating through a talented student translator (who later shared his aspirations to be a translator for embassies), we were immediately impressed by Ms. Zohir’s passion to provide her students with quality and consistent education.

Zack and Maya meet some of the students while touring the Somoniyon Afghan Refugee School.

We learned that each teacher was a volunteer, and they themselves were Afghan refugees. The attitudes of the teachers mirrored that of the others we spoke with throughout the day — dedicated, earnest, and kind. It was moving to meet so many individuals who had experienced such great loss and hardship in their own lives dedicating themselves to the betterment of students at this school on a volunteer basis.

After the tour, we made our way to the performance hall which was filled with school staff and students. Following Ms. Zohir’s welcome and brief remarks from the US Embassy, it was Zack’s turn to speak.

As Zack moved through his thank you’s, background on Spirit of America, and other formalities, the audience hung on to his every word. Finally, it was time for the main announcement: Spirit of America was committing to another full year of funding for Somoniyon Refugee School.

After a dramatic pause during which this message was translated from English to Dari, the room erupted in applause and cheers. I glanced around at smiling faces, one girl clapping her hands together in disbelief, and looks of relief passing between teachers. This announcement provided another year of hope for the future.

Before Zack’s big announcement, a group of students open the ceremony with a song in their native language of Dari.

Zack announces that Spirit of America is committing to an additional full year of funding for the Somoniyon School.

The announcement was followed by the distribution of 500 student backpacks, one for each student in the school. At the beginning of the day, we had stocked the backpacks with notebooks, pencils, pens, folders, erasers, and other supplies. Now, I stood with arms full of backpacks and distributed them one by one to each grateful student.

Maya distributes backpacks stocked with school supplies to the smiling students.

Perhaps it was because I’d been waiting all day for my first taste of palov, or perhaps it was my realization that it was noon: my stomach audibly growled at the smell of the rich rice dish just across the courtyard. As the students sat at their tables, Zack and I helped the oshpaz ladle the palov onto plates before sitting down amongst the students. I cheerfully chatted with them, asking them their names, ages, what they liked to study, and what they wanted to do (all so very ambitious!) before the urge to try the palov overpowered me. My first bite was still tear-inducingly hot, but delicious. The mild sweetness from the raisins combined with the toasty flavor from the nuts forming a marvelously hearty dish. I looked up to find anxious faces carefully waiting for my reaction, and with a full mouth, I gave them a thumbs up, nodded animatedly, and grinned. The students smiled back at me with relief before diving back into their palov.

It was fitting that our visit started and ended with palov. The delicious rice dish left us all big-bellied, bright-eyed, and content with the meal shared together. The students ate lightheartedly around us, smiling, chatting, new backpacks on their laps, with peace of mind knowing their education was secure for another year.

I was grateful to have shared this day with these resilient and optimistic students, and was proud that the goodwill of the American people could be passed through Spirit of America to these extremely deserving students. It seemed that palov carried the spirit of the good Tajik people with it: welcoming, warm, and familiar.

Maya first joined Spirit of America in September 2019 as a remote intern on the Middle East Field Operations team while completing her Fulbright research scholarship in Oman. At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, she began working on the Middle East portfolio at Mercy Corps before eagerly returning to Spirit of America full-time in January 2022. Maya brings experience from the Department of State, global health and engagement NGOs, and firms focusing on Middle Eastern research and international trade regulation and logistics. Maya continues her pursuit of studying Arabic and French, in addition to her native language of Japanese.
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3033 Wilson Blvd.
Suite 700
Arlington, VA 22201

Follow Us

No endorsement of Spirit of America by the US Department of Defense, Department of State, or US personnel is intended or implied.

Registered 501(c)(3). EIN: 20-1687786

“You don't have to wear a uniform to serve the nation.™” and “Patriotism without politics.™” are trademarked by Spirit of America.

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