Our story starts all the way back in 1977.
Born in Greece, Haris Coussidis had an early brush with the plight of refugees, as her father worked in the UNHCR. “We moved around as a family to new postings every two to four years. I grew up in Iran, Pakistan, Switzerland and then went to the UK for university.” She took up photography in 2001, first as a hobby, but 2002 changed that with her first photography job with MSF (Doctors Without Borders).
“It was then that I really understood the full use of photography to tell stories and bring to light forgotten or little understood issues, whilst focusing on the strength and resilience of people.”
Since then, she has worked with various humanitarian organisations (UNHCR, UNICEF, MSF, OXFAM and ICRC) in Central Asia, East Africa and South East Asia.
In 2009, she took a break from photography to study and work in commercial cookery. “A year in this industry taught a lot about food and admittedly I had a bit of a romantic idea of what it would be to work in it. The reality was a lot different – it’s a tough profession!”
Though she has gone back to photography since, her experience in the food industry has helped her with a wider expertise in the food sector that can then be combined with photography. Making her well-equipped to produce, say, a cookbook.
And she did just that, authoring “A Taste From Home”, a cookbook highlighting various cultural dishes of refugees residing in Malaysia. The cookbook features recipes from Syria, Afghanistan, Myanmar and Iran, to name a few.
It came from a need to put a human face on refugee issues in Malaysia through a common unifying interest: food.
According to UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), there are some 151,560 registered refugees in Malaysia, from countries like Myanmar, Yemen, Iraq and Palestine, etc. Currently, Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees and has no legal framework in place to set refugees apart from undocumented migrants, putting them at risk of detention and deportation. As they seek solace from their homeland, they are thrown into a new world.
“For refugees it is often a way to forget their daily uncertainties of living in an unfamiliar environment. Preparing home cooked meals create a sense of normalcy and routine.”
She didn’t just want to stop at just writing about the dishes and recipes – she wanted to include their stories as well. “It is hoped that this will allow the public to understand parts of the refugee story that are often untold.”
By far, the greatest challenge she faced producing the cookbook was that everything was essentially done by one person – herself, from photography to interviews to the accompanying text. “When I started working on this project, I didn’t know what it took to make a cookbook from scratch.”
You know how your mom eschews the use of precise measurements when she cooks? Turns out, that’s a problem when you’re writing a cookbook, where you need fixed quantities to ensure a quality dish. “All of them are cooks by feel, sight and taste (I cook in the same way) with inherent traditional food knowledge. So when it came down to writing the recipes, ‘a little bit of this’ or ‘a touch of that’ had to be converted to ‘a tablespoon of turmeric’ or ‘a pinch of saffron’, which is not as easy as it sounds.”
Also, some of the ingredients had to be adjusted to what is readily available in Malaysia, but still retain authenticity. It highlights the refugees’ need to adapt to their current circumstance without relinquishing tradition, similar to how immigrants used what was at hand to recreate or innovate.
All in all, the project spanned twelve months from initial idea to final print.
“It goes without saying that meeting these wonderful cooks and their families and being welcomed into their homes was the highlight for me. And eating some amazing food! But I was also extremely excited that the cookbook generated such huge interest.”
For those twelve months, what spurred her on? “The resilience and strength of the refugees were my constant motivator to make this cookbook – as well as their belief that this cookbook was going to happen.”
Through the cookbook, Haris hopes it will in some way help create a greater degree of communication and integration between the refugee communities and the multi-cultural society that is Malaysia.
“This book is a tribute and recognition of their immense resilience, wisdom and courage despite the hardships and heartbreaking events they have endured and witnessed.”
“A Taste From Home” is available for RM 60 at UNHCR and Borders bookstores. Proceeds from every sale go to support refugee communities in Malaysia.