The Daily Tar Heel

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Saturday January 23rd

Q&A with refugee chef from Burma

Khai Nyuitow prepares food for the Transplanting Traditions fundraising dinner September 30.
Buy Photos Khai Nyuitow prepares food for the Transplanting Traditions fundraising dinner September 30.

Transplanting Traditions Community Farm, a farm where refugee families grow and sell food, will host a fundraising dinner at Lantern on Sept. 30. Khai Nyuitow, a Karen refugee from Burma, is the head chef for the event. She is 26 and has lived in Chapel Hill since 2005 with her two children. The Daily Tar Heel’s Stephanie Lamm sat down with Nyuitow as she prepared for the event.

The Daily Tar Heel: How did you discover that you liked cooking?

Khai Nyuitow: I start cooking when I was 7 years old because I have to take care of my three brothers. It’s really hard for us to get money because we don’t have any job in the refugee camp. My parents, they have to go out of the camp and work ... I have to cook and find food for them every meal.

In our cultures, for Karen people, women always have to stay home and take care of the family. They have to know how to cook.

DTH: What was it like finding housing and a job with limited English?

KN: We got a bunch of the letters and I don’t know what they mean and where did they come from. I always had to ask for help from friends or neighbors to read and sometimes to fill out the application form too.

Even when I had just five minutes or ten minutes, I’d try to read and write English and try to teach myself English. I thought, “Oh Khai, you should realize you cannot ask for help every day...You have to stand up by yourself and do it.”

DTH: Was it hard for you asking for help?

KN: Yes, sometimes it felt bad to ask and keep asking for help from people. It feels so bad but you don’t have the ability to do it on your own. Also, the letter is important or not important, I don’t even know. I always have to ask. I feel so bad. The people who would help you, it’s difficult for them, too, because they have their family and they cannot give their time all the time to help you. It’s hard.

DTH: Would you say learning English was the most difficult thing about coming here?

KN: I came here for five years...but it’s still so hard for me. I am now working on getting my GED and I have a tutor from the Orange County Literacy Council. It’s hard for me, though because I have two kids. I’m a mom and I’m a dad. I’m divorced after we came here.

DTH: Are you excited for the dinner?

KN: Making food to give someone that you like and you love and when you want them to enjoy it and make them healthy, it is so exciting.

DTH: What’s an example of a Karen dish?

KN: We have soup, vegetable and then if we have the curry we eat the curry and rice and we eat it all at the same time. We serve it at the same time and then we eat.

The first time I start cooking here I thought, “Wow everything is so different because it’s so separate.” Our Karen dish we eat it all at the same time. Also, in our Karen culture we don’t eat dessert or cheese.

DTH: Was it hard to adjust to American culture?

KN: When we live in the Thailand refugee camp, we don’t have to be on time. Every time when we were to meet with the doctor or something, we don’t have to make appointments. We just go and see each other.

For the social life in the refugee camp we can see each other every day. We make food and dinner and we eat together, the whole family and also the whole neighbors and it’s so much fun. But when we came here, if you want to meet with your friends you have to make an appointment. We don’t have much time for social life now. It’s very structured.

DTH: Did you ever have a break to relax?

KN: No, I’m always thinking and trying to do something. I never want to waste my time because I feel like every minute and every second is very valuable for me.

I always want to help people, so I used to work with the Karen Buddhist Association. We work with the youth and we teach them to keep our culture alive and also so then we teach them how to sing and dance in our cultures.

DTH: How strong is the Karen community here?

KN: It’s very strong community here and a lot of support. There are a lot of organizations that help.

Chapel Hill, Carrboro is the most beautiful place and it’s really the best place to live because the organizations and all of us support each other.

DTH: Are you going to teach your boys how to cook?

KN: I’m teaching my older son. He knows how to make easy food like noodles.

Being a single mother is sometimes good, but sometimes not good too because you have to deal with everything, and sometimes you feel so down and worried about the future, about the kids’ futures.

With the organizations here I feel like I’m not alone...they’re always there for me. Chapel Hill and Carrboro is the best place for me ever.

@slamm_5

city@dailytarheel.com


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