Sharifo and her story of hope told in food

This article was originally posted in Edible Buffalo’s Winter 2013 edition.

So many of Buffalo’s refugees come from homes in countries so far from here. It takes them a great deal of money and effort to get here. They leave because their lives are endangered, either by violence, famine, or disease. They aren’t eager to come here. An immigrant plans for this, they know this is where they’d like to move to and often this move paves the way for more to follow. Often they come here because they have some connection to the community, because of a job, family, or school.

Refugees come because it is their only option They leave behind their businesses, their families, their friends, everything they have ever known, trusted or believed in to take a chance in another country where they have to start all over. Ill prepared for the rapid changes, the first thirty days are the most tumultuous. They have to be able to find a doctor, get their kids to school, take classes in English if they are not already fluent, and find a job. They’re taught about American culture, how to act in public and at school, and parents take classes to learn to adjust to the increased responsibility of parenting without an extended family. Over the first four months the Federal government covers expenses to help with transitioning into America. The Resettlement Department, the Legal Department, the Translation and Interpreting Department, the Social Work Department and the Employment Department, along with resettlement agencies such as Catholic Charities of Buffalo, Jewish Family Services of Buffalo and Western New York, The International Institute, and Journey’s End all work together to ensure success.

Nearly one thousand Somali Bantu refugees live on the west side of Buffalo. Forced from their homeland on the Northeastern coast of Africa where they endured decades long civil war, famine, religious prosecution and the often primitive conditions in bordering country refugee camps. They entered the United States with nothing but their clothing and perhaps a few personal items. Each receives a bill for their flight to the U.S.; totaling thousands of dollars, they will have to depend on the generosity of others to pay it for them or work out a payment plan. Although they are provided services such as housing, cultural orientation, and job assistance, they remain a community in need.

Sharifo is one of these people, but her story is so much more complicated. She left behind more than belongings; she left behind four of her sons who are out of reach, unable to contact them. From a large home in Mogadishu on the eastern shores of the Indian Ocean, she left her ex-husband and Yassir’s four older brothers, and all of the rest of her family to escape the constant fighting, bombings, snipers, oppressive al-Shabaab rulings and more. She arrived here in Buffalo two and a half years ago and since that time has been unable to secure her sons’ release from their father.


She has remarried, beginning a new story, an American story; and with one part pride-filled smile one part stern look watches her youngest child dance around underfoot, smiling and speaking rapidly in English. Knowing he will never have to live with the uncertainty she has.

When she lived in Somalia, she ran a restaurant. Here she washes dishes, her gift lost on all but those who are closest to her. When I visited she created in less than an hour fourteen dishes, each more delicious than the next. It is her hope to perhaps open a restaurant, like other refugees have done, sharing her view of the world through her food.

Recipe #1

Somalia’s al-Shabaab, an extreme militant Islamist group focused in and around the city of Mogadishu, banned sambusas last year after ruling the popular snack is offensive and too Christian. Along with other bizarre rulings, the famine, bombings, random seizures of property, and kidnapping of young men and women, many people have applied for emergency visas to the west. Eating a sambusa is now an act of rebellion.

Sambusa wrap:

3 cups flour

1/4 cup ghee or softened butter

1 cup warm water

1 1/2 cups oil for deep frying


1 pound minced lamb or goat

1/4 cup ghee or butter

1 small onion, minced

1 clove of garlic, crushed

1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger

1 tablespoon Cumin seeds

2 tablespoons Garam Masala

1 tablespoon Turmeric powder

1 tablespoon Chili powder

1 potato, minced
1 cup water

1 tablespoon flour

1/4 cup water

For wrap:

Sift the flour into a bowl, cut in the ghee until crumbly. Add the cumin, gradually stir in water and mix to a firm dough. Knead on a lightly floured surface for about 5 minutes. Cover and let stand for 10 minutes. Divide the pastry in half, rolling each half to about 1/4 inch thickness. Then cut into 4×4 inch squares. Place one tablespoon of the filling into the centre. Brush the edges of the pastry and fold into a triangle and then fold again.
For Filling:

Heat the ghee (or butter) in a pan, adding the onion, garlic, ginger and spices. Cook for 1 minute while stirring. Add the meat, continuing to stir for about 5 minutes. Add the potatoes and water. Bring to a boil, and then reduce the heat and simmer, covered, for 20 minutes. Blend the flour and water to make a roux, adding it to the pan, and stir until the mixture thickens. Cool to room temperature before filling the wraps.

Heat the oil and slid three sambusas in the pan at a time, turning them over gently. Drain well and serve hot.

Recipe #2

Somalian suqaar is a quick fried meat dish, using beef or chicken but usually lamb or goat is featured. Sharifo’s young son, Yassir, turned up his nose at the rich dish and his hand dived into the plates of sweets sitting in the center of the table when I tasted this.


2 pounds of meat, finely cubed
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, thinly sliced

1 red and 1 green sweet pepper, thinly sliced
2 tbsp tomato puree
½ red chili, chopped into small pieces

Heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the meat and a pinch of salt. Then add the onion, tomato puree and chili. Stir-fry the meat until cooked. Finally add the sweet peppers and cook for another three minutes. Traditionally this dish is served with canjeero, a kind of fermented crepe-like pancake. You can also serve it with sabaayad, a flat moist bread, or with pita.

Recipe #3

Icun is a sweet mostly eaten by southern Somalis. Made of sugar and flour mixed with oil or ghee, it is very much like a Scottish shortbread, and Sharifo cut hers into thick rounds with a dot of turmeric coloring the center. “Icun I calaangi caloosha I gee” or “Eat me, chew me then take me to your stomach” is a child’s saying when these are served. Mainly eaten at weddings and during the month of Eid, many Somalis make it and eat it with their richly flavored coffee or very sweet, spiced tea. This was little Yassir’s, and my, favorite sweet.

Plain shortbread cookies:
1 cup of room temperature unsalted butter
2/3 cup powdered sugar
2 cups flour

1/4 tsp ground Cardamom

Place the butter in the bowl of a mixer. Add the powdered sugar and beat for 7 minutes until smooth. Slowly add the flour and then the ground cardamom. Mix for 3 more minutes.

Scrape the dough out of the bowl and roll gently into a log shape and wrap up in parchment or wax paper. Refrigerate the dough for 1 hour. Roll the dough out under your fingers until 3 inches in diameter. Cut 1/2 inch slices off this long roll. Set onto a greased cookie sheet and bake in a preheated oven at 350°F for 18 to 20 minutes or until it is a light golden brown.

You can decorate the center of the shortbread with glazed cherries, currants, cloves, a dab of food coloring, or a dot of turmeric.

Recipe #4

Masoor Dal, the orange lentil soup thickened to a porridge-like consistency and was well balanced. Operating as a cleanser between bites of hot chili sauce, this dal was delicious.

Serves 4

400g masoor dal (skinned orange split lentils)
4 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
4 cm piece of root ginger, peeled and cut into 4
1 tablespoons turmeric 
4 small green chilies, 2 finely chopped, 2 left whole (optional)
2 tablespoons ghee
2 shallots, finely sliced
1 tablespoons cumin seeds
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 teaspoon crushed chilies

Wash the dal until the water runs clear, then drain and put in a large pan and cover with 6 cups of cold water. Bring to a boil and skim off any scum that rises to the surface.

Add the garlic, ginger, turmeric (and chopped chilies if you choose to make this spicy) to the pan with a pinch of salt. Turn down the heat, cover, leaving the lid slightly ajar, and simmer very gently for about 1½ hours. Stir occasionally, until the dal has broken down completely and become creamy.

Add boiling water or reduce the dal further to achieve your preferred consistency if necessary, and season to taste. If you chose to make this spicy, then add the whole chilies at this point and simmer for 15 minutes more.

Meanwhile, heat the ghee or oil in a frying pan over a medium high heat and add the shallots. Stir until golden and beginning to crisp, then add the dried spices and cook for a couple of minutes until the mustard seeds are beginning to pop and then stir these into the dal. Serve with plain rice or flatbreads.