Women Build Friendships and Business Skills at Sanctuary Kitchen

Nonprofit helps refugees find community and begin new lives in New Haven.

Women of Sanctuary Kitchen
Rawan Ghazi, Azhar Ahmed, Homa Assaid and Rawan Oudeh are cooks at Sanctuary Kitchen who have made lasting friendships. Photos by Judy Sirota-Rosenthal.

Every Friday afternoon, customers eagerly line up at Sanctuary Kitchen to pick up dinners that might include Afghan dumplings, Syrian shrimp Biryani, Iraqi chicken, naan bread with hummus and various dips and sweets like baklava and vanilla cake. The international menu comes from the cooks, immigrant women who are recent refugees and asylum seekers. Their delicious food has made Sanctuary Kitchen a weekly take-home dinner destination as well as a popular caterer and vendor at local farmers markets. More importantly, it has given the women opportunities to find community and build an economic foothold in a new country.

“Friendships have blossomed inside the kitchen and out over the sharing of culture and food,” said Carol Byer-Alcorace, Sanctuary Kitchen Culinary Director. “That’s how you cultivate community. That’s how community gets built.”

Sanctuary Kitchen began in 2017 as a program of CitySeed, the New Haven-based nonprofit that runs the city’s farmers markets and a food-business incubator. The commercial kitchen provides living wages while helping participants develop business skills and become entrepreneurs. Since its launch, the program has received several grants from The Community Foundation, including support from the Basic Needs Fund and The Community Fund for Women and Girls Pathways to Economic Success for Women program. CitySeed has also sent participants through The Foundation’s Nonprofit Management Program for Emerging Leaders of Color.

Azhar Ahmed, the head chef and a refugee from The Sudan, has started a side catering business since coming to Sanctuary Kitchen. She is now in the process of planning to open a café.

Head chef Azhar Ahmed, a refugee from Sudan, makes falafal.

As important as learning business skills, said Ahmed, is the opportunity to meet and build friendships.

“We are connecting with each other,” said Ahmed. “We help each other with English. We share our culture. We learn from each other.”

Prepared food is sold for take out dinners and at farmers markets.

Working through a partnership with the immigrant resettlement agency Iris, the program has steadily expanded, said Byer-Alcorace. They recently opened a stall at the Madison Farmer’s Market that regularly sells out. The women plan the menus collaboratively and typically cook more than 250 meals a week.

Friendships have blossomed inside the kitchen and out over the sharing of culture and food.

Carol Byer-Alcorace / Sanctuary Kitchen Culinary Director

True to its name, the kitchen is a second home for the women, a place of security and community.

“I love it because we are all women and all refugees. We share our experiences. I have learned so much about other traditions and cultures,” said Rawa Ghazi, a refugee from Iraq. Ghazi said she would otherwise never have known about the cultures and traditions of all the countries represented at Sanctuary Kitchen - Afghanistan, Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Mauritius, Nigeria and Nepal.

Ghazi said her favorite food is now Afghan.

“They make a dumpling that is amazing. My kids love it!”