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Chapel Hill Public Library hosts new exhibit centering refugee chefs

An exhibit at the Chapel Hill Public Library, called “Old Dishes, New Dreams: Immigrant Food Stories from Chapel Hill” features stories and recipes from chefs in the community.

The Chapel Hill Public Library hosted an opening reception for its new multimedia exhibit, "Old Dishes, New Dreams," on Oct. 14.

The multilingual exhibit is a collaboration with the Refugee Community Partnership and features the stories of 14 local chefs from seven language communities. 

“Our role in community history is to work with people whose stories are traditionally left out of the narrative,” Molly Luby, the community history director for the Chapel Hill Public Library, said. 

The exhibit consists of videos and photos of each chef sharing a dish from their culture, with interviews that prompted stories about their family and home. The videos were recorded in each chef's native language, and participants received stipends for their efforts.

In addition to English, the exhibit includes displays written in Burmese, Chin, Karen, Swahili, Kurmanji, French and Spanish. 

“Almost 20 percent of the people in Chapel Hill are foreign-born and speak languages other than English,” Luby said.  

The library partnered closely with RCP to plan the opening event and the exhibit itself. The exhibit is available to visitors during the library’s open hours until the end of November, as well in a digital version on the Chapel Hill Community History Website.

RCP is a grassroots organization that connects with migrant and refugee populations throughout central North Carolina. They provide a wide range of assistive services, including a variety of strategies to tackle language barriers without losing non-English languages. 

Their program coordinator, Paw Paw Wei, recruited the chefs. RCP also provided translators throughout the production and at the reception.

"(Wei) was at so many of these interviews, and asked amazing questions and really brought such a beautiful dynamic to the project,” Mandella Younge, a community history team member at the Chapel Hill Public Library, said. 

Participants can collect recipes cards featuring dishes from the exhibit, which include both English and the respective chefs’ primary languages. The cards contain recipes dishes from the exhibit, like chickpea and potato curry, arroz con leche and banana sticky rice.

The cards also show QR codes that link to the digital version of the exhibit on the Chapel Hill Community History website.

Younge, who helped make the cards, said she was careful to record what the participants explicitly said, without editing it into a more standard recipe formula, in an effort to attribute ownership to them. 

“I wanted us to break away from this very particularly Western standard,” she said.

Luby said, because of the challenges associated with the pandemic, all of the participants cooked outdoors for their recordings. 

Another goal of the exhibit and RCP is to build relationships with the refugee community in Chapel Hill. Hser Nay Htoo was one of the refugees who attended the reception.

Htoo said he was there “because of the food.” He also said he liked the pupusas there. 

Htoo speaks Karen, a language associated with Eastern Myanmar, with his mother and sister, who also attended the event. He was accompanied by a Bridge Builder Volunteer with the RCP, who has worked with Htoo and his family for four years. 

“Communities that are connected are stronger, more resilient, more just — everything that we hope to see in the future,” Luby said. 

@DTHCityState |

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