Popping up new economic opportunities for Afghan women refugees in New York’s Hudson Valley

Monday February 27, 2023

On a chilly Thursday evening in the Hudson Valley last month, people arriving at a local church were greeted with deliciously exotic smells pouring out of their parish hall. Two Afghan women refugees from the area had been given the opportunity by the church to do a pop-up dinner featuring their home country’s cuisine. With the help of volunteers from the Afghan Circle of the Hudson Valley, they produced and sold 150 four-course take-out meals — to rave reviews.

“We quickly sold all of the tickets available for this first dinner,” said Susan Sprachman, a returned Peace Corps Volunteer (Afghanistan 1969-1971) and one of the founders of the Afghan Circle. “The feedback we got was very positive, so we increased the number of meals in February to 180 – and sold out that dinner as well. People buying the meals say they’re delighted not only with the chance to enjoy excellent Afghan cuisine, but also for the opportunity to meaningfully support Afghan refugees.”

The Afghan women cooking the meals had been significant contributors to their family’s economic well-being in Afghanistan. But, since coming to the U.S., their abilities to contribute financially to their families had been hampered by language and legal barriers. The opportunity to create the pop-up dinners offers an important means by which the women can once again meaningfully help support their families. After calculating the cost of the ingredients for creating the meal, buying takeout containers to serve it in, obtaining insurance, and covering other expenses, the women netted enough from the first meal to pay their family’s rent for the month.

This result represents a major advance toward the family’s financial self-sufficiency goal – a goal supported by the Afghan Circle. Formed in 2021, the Circle brought together 20 area residents who wanted to aid Afghan refugees in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Susan Sprachman and her RPCV husband, Paul (Afghanistan 1969-1971), were the only members of the Circle who had lived in Afghanistan, and their knowledge of Afghan culture and languages has been a crucial resource guiding the Circle’s efforts.

The group helped two families secure housing, get driver’s licenses, enroll children in school, start English classes, find cars, get medical attention, and resolve the myriad other issues involved in settling in a strange new country. They also helped the families find pro bono lawyers. The Circle was very successful in their fundraising efforts when they formed, and the money they raised allowed them to help with the initial expenses of resettlement. Now they are moving on to the phase of helping the newcomers achieve their goal of becoming fully self-supporting.

For RPCVs in other parts of the U.S. who might be considering helping refugees in their communities create their own pop-up meals, here are some of the lessons Sprachman reports her group has learned:

  • Partnering with a church that has experience hosting events was crucial to their success because the church was able to market the dinner via its extensive email list. Additionally, the church has payment processing capabilities in place that make taking payment in advance for the dinners straightforward.  The church has the capability to create flyers for the event complete with a QR code customers can use to go directly to a webpage for ordering their meals.
  • Having a certified commercial kitchen was a requirement, and the church allowed the Afghan women to use the kitchen free of charge because helping refugees is part of the church’s social mission. Sprachman suggests that groups contemplating a similar undertaking partner with a church or synagogue or non-profit that has as part of its mission supporting refugees.
  • The group made the decision to keep the meals authentic rather than altering them to fulfill American expectations. For example, one of the dishes they served had chicken as an ingredient, and they chose not to overload it with portions of chicken larger than what would be expected in Afghanistan. The group decided to use meat — in the traditional manner — as a complementary component of the dish rather than the dominant, overpowering element. Each takeout meal was accompanied by a handout explaining this aspect of authentic Afghan cuisine.
  • The group specified in the tickets sold for the meals what the pickup time for each ticket was; they staggered the times for pickup so they were not overwhelmed by people arriving.
  • They only sold the meals by advance purchase, and that helped keep the flow of meal pickups manageable. It also allowed the cooks to purchase only the amount of ingredients needed.
  • Insurance had to be obtained, and the Hudson Valley group found that when they shopped around they were able to cut in half the cost of insurance.
  • The group sent out an email survey to those who bought the first meal to get feedback; they’re adjusting the meal they’re serving in February to reflect the input.
  • For promoting the dinners, Sprachman said that posting on “foodie” Facebook groups in their area is helping to bring in additional patrons who might not have been reached via the church’s email list.
  • The Afghan Circle put out a box at the check-in table to collect cash donations for the family, and many patrons donated generously.
  • The Afghan women will be producing the pop-up meals monthly through the spring; when farmers markets begin reopening later in the season, the Afghan Circle of Hudson Valley will help them obtain the required licenses, insurance, permits, and equipment so they can begin selling Afghan food — such as mantu dumplings — to farmers market patrons. And who knows? Perhaps some day their business will evolve to include a food truck or restaurant.

If you’d like to learn more about helping refugees start their own pop-up meal service, Sprachman is happy to try to answer questions and share the Afghan Circle of Hudson Valley’s experience.  She can be reached via email at [email protected].

Article written by Cynthia Pulham Wolfe [[email protected]]

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