“Just believe in yourself,” 46-year-old chef Nasrin Rejali said when asked what advice she’d give refugees like herself who fled to the United States to find a better life. Originally hailing from Iran and landing in New York in 2016 by way of Turkey, the divorced, single mother of three now has her own business cooking pop-up dinners and takeout meals in New York while selling traditional Iranian desserts online. In this Voices in Food story, Rejali tells Anna Rahmanan about the refugee organizations that have helped her along the way, the type of eatery she hopes to one day open and how COVID-19 actually afforded her some respite.
In Iran, if you don’t have a birth certificate, you can’t study or really have anything. My son had an issue with his birth certificate, so one of my friends told me to go to Turkey and tell them about my problem. So I went there to try and give my kids a better life. It was really hard. I went to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and told them, “I don’t have a passport and neither do my children.” I told them my story and they helped me with everything and [eventually] sent me to the United States two and a half years later.
I am so happy here because my kids are so happy. What I like about the United States is that they respect women and it doesn’t matter whether you’re a man or a woman, you can be whoever you want to be. Nobody tells you: “You’re a woman so you can’t do that.”
It was scary to come to the United States without a house or an apartment. I went to a shelter with my three kids. That was so hard because my English isn’t good and I didn’t get any benefits from the government. At one point, my children and I asked the International Rescue Committee if we could go to New Jersey from New York. They found us an apartment there, but I still didn’t have a job or benefits. We went to the church for some food and, after that, I told my kids that I know it is hard, but we should go back to New York because there are more choices for work and schools there.
“The virus has taken a lot of things from me, but it has also given me the opportunity to start my own business and I got a lot of good feedback. Maybe, if it wasn’t for COVID-19, I would still be working at a catering company.”
I asked the IRC not to help me find a home but to find me a job, and they found one for me at Eat Offbeat. It’s a catering company that hires refugees from around the world to work with cooks. I worked there for three years, until COVID-19 hit.
[Then], I lost my job and had to stay home and it made me crazy because I’m used to working. I started making traditional Iranian desserts at home and one of my friends told me that some of her friends in New York might help me start a business. I made an LLC, her friends helped me with my brand and, since New Year’s Eve, I’ve had my own business. Twice a month I do a Persian pop-up dinner and I have a website where I sell desserts ― Nasrin’s Kitchen. I make Persian granola, Persian baklava ― anything from Iran. Right now, I cook at my friend’s restaurant but I’m looking for another kitchen.
My dream was always to open a Persian teahouse where I could make traditional Iranian food. In the United States, I see people just thinking about work, work, work. Even when they go to parties they talk about work. I think there is something missing and we should be giving some of Iran to New York.
[People always tell me to open a restaurant], but I don’t want people to think that they can’t come to my eatery because they don’t have money. At a teahouse, they can come and have tea, dance and have a happy time without any problems. When people are happy, work is more beautiful and you have more energy. It’s not just about going to a restaurant, sitting, eating and spending money. I want to help people and show off Persian culture.
People tell me I should start working with refugees and Black people but, since I have been in a shelter, I think that working with people coming from shelters and helping them build a life [is an even better] idea.
I know a lot of families are suffering. I even lost my aunt to COVID-19. The virus has taken a lot of things from me, but it has also given me the opportunity to start my own business and I got a lot of good feedback. Maybe, if it wasn’t for COVID-19, I would still be working at a catering company. Now I have my own business, so it’s really good for me.