Culinary diplomacy: Supporting Afghan refugees in Tajikistan
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.
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.
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.
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.
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