By Rana Novack, Social Impact and Innovation Evangelist
I had never before heard the term “Conflict Cuisine,” so in March of 2018, when I was asked to speak to students in a course by the same name at American University in Washington, DC, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I learned that the class was developed by Professor Johanna Mendelson-Forman after she noticed that she could identify where conflict existed around the world by the types of ethnic restaurants that would begin to open in the city.
Up until that point, the only connection between food and conflict that I was familiar with was when it was used as a weapon of war – I had read stories of neighborhoods in conflict zones being strategically starved and cut off from food deliveries, forcing residents to use grass from their lawns to make soup and eat wild dogs to survive. How hopeful to think that the same tool used so cruelly against civilians in a time of conflict could be the very thing to offer economic salvation as they rebuild their lives, while providing an added dimension of cultural (and delectable) diversity in their new communities.
Resilience. It’s a characteristic that’s essential in life – and in business. And what better training ground for the type of creativity, hard work, fortitude, and determination to do whatever it takes to get the job done than having to leave everything behind and start anew in a foreign country. Yet still, the myth that immigrants are somehow a detriment to the economies of the societies in which they live and work pervades anti-immigrant rhetoric. Refugees and migrants are continually cast as economic villains, leeches on society descending to steal the jobs that they’re somehow also, paradoxically and allegedly, too uneducated to perform.
To those that subscribe to this flawed thinking, I’d say, á la Taylor Swift: You need to calm down.
A simple, googleable review of the facts is all it takes to disprove the false, stubborn narrative that immigration is anything but a benefit to developed economies. Time and again, in study after study it has been proven that with migration comes higher productivity, increased GDP per person, greater innovation and entrepreneurship – and that’s just to the host country. The economies of immigrants’ home countries realize benefits in the form of financial support that may be sent to family members back home.
Education and skill diversity further enhance the economic landscape. Variation in education demonstrates that immigrants are more likely to have a doctorate or other advanced degree, while those who have attained a lower level of education can fill the gaps in labor markets that require less specialized skills. This, in turn, creates more opportunities for the existing workforce to advance. In other words, all boats rise with the tide.
It’s critical that we give migrants and refugees the opportunity to exercise their profession and be productive members of their new communities. In fact, sustainable, durable solutions depend on it. So much so that one of the four objectives of the recent United Nations Global Compact on Refugees is to enhance refugee self-reliance and foster inclusive economic growth. Increasingly, the global community is realizing that economic inclusion and the right to work is key to a migration framework that works for everyone.
There’s also benefit beyond the clear economic advantage: When we enable self-reliance and economic inclusion, we help restore purpose, and afford refugees and migrants the dignity of honorable work. As an advocate for refugees, I have personally polished the resumes of resettled refugees wildly overqualified for the positions in which they work. I’ve witnessed first-hand the determination of a physician working as a cashier in a thrift store – and while all work is noble and dignified, we do ourselves a disservice when we don’t recognize the valuable contributions that each individual is capable of making. While the need to provide life-saving humanitarian aid like shelter, food, and healthcare is indisputable, the most precious provision we can give is empowerment. There are other basic human needs like purpose, meaning, and dignity that won’t be found in the back of any aid truck.
Conflict Cuisine is so called because it is prepared by those who have come from areas of conflict. But perhaps the name is somewhat of a misnomer. For what we find is, people who come from civil war bring not conflict or chaos, but hard work and determination. They open restaurants, start businesses, learn new languages, send their kids to school, and sometimes end up being the glue that holds communities together. From conflict comes cohesiveness, and from hardship, hope. In America, and around the world, immigrants – many arriving as refugees – have brought with them the recipe for economic success.
Rana Novack is a Social Impact & Innovation Evangelist, Global Policy Scholar and UVA Faculty Affiliate. View her TED talk here.