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Kitchens For Change: Turlock Teens Cook For Afghan Refugees

TURLOCK (CBS13) — Peek inside the kitchen of First and Main in Turlock on a Sunday in November and there are onions sweating in a pot; custard has just come off the stove and is being packaged; there is a sous-chef standing in front of the fryers cooking chicken.

Of course, that's what can be seen. In the air, there's pepper, cardamom, cumin, saffron, and turmeric that mixes with the rest of a traditional Afghan meal.

The cooks in the kitchen haven't made this cuisine before but volunteered their time on a weekend to learn. They are students at Turlock and Pittman High Schools and members of Kitchens For Change.

The club started as an idea among friends, Elias Rabine and Audrey Smallwood. Both grew up in the restaurant industry. When the pandemic hit, they knew they had the tools and the idea to make a difference.

"The success of this club has been because of the partnerships. It's not just one group of people, it's students partnered with chef's, partnered with businesses," said Rabine, a co-founder of Kitchens For Change and senior at Turlock High School. 

Rabine's family owns First and Main in Turlock and he regularly works in the restaurant. At the height of the pandemic, he saw images of lines outside of food pantries and learned more about food insecurities in his own community.

"At first he really didn't have a specific idea, it was just, 'How about we do something with the restaurant?'" said Mohini Singh, Rabine's mother and Kitchens For Change advisor. 

The idea grew when Rabine learned about Chef José Andrés and World Central Kitchen. Andrés, a Spanish immigrant and American citizen, established the organization to feed communities in need and provide training to empower communities, too. The organization also provides food disaster relief after emergencies all over the world.

"As high school students we realized we could help out," Rabine said. 

He reached out to Smallwood, whose family owns La Mo Cafe in Turlock — and Kitchens For Change was born.

"Kitchens For Change is just students dedicated towards tackling food insecurities within our community. We're going to do whatever we can to really help end hunger in Turlock," Smallwood said.

Calling on their friends, they established bylaws, created an officer team, and set up a booth at Club Rush in September. Singh said there were nearly 160 students who signed up to participate.

Through fundraising, Kitchens For Change purchases the ingredients for meals. Local restaurants open the kitchens on days when they are closed to the public so the students can cook. They're guided and taught by professional chefs who volunteer their time.

The students volunteer on their weekends to cook, and the meals are given out for free.

"These kids that are part of the community to put in this work, care for us, towards Turlock, towards the well being of this area. It's very fun to watch that," said Nestor Jacobo, a chef volunteering his time to teach. 

Jacobo said the teens have learned kitchen basics quickly. By their third event, they moved around the kitchen in a way he compared to a "dance." They knew their roles, relied on their strengths, and packaged dozens of meals.

Familiar Flavors for Afghan Refugees

Sunday, Kitchens For Change focused on feeding Afghan refugees who fled Afghanistan three months ago to escape the Taliban. The refugees, who arrived in Turlock with few belongings, if any, have not had the ability to cook traditional meals in weeks.

Zhara Haideri was their guide and guest-chef, to teach them how to make a traditional Afghan meal.

"It encourages me more for the future to help them. I was inspired by these students that they are willing to help the refugees," Haideri said. 

The meal consisted of chicken, rice, a side salad, and custard for dessert all mixed with familiar flavors and spices. Haideri said this is the kind of food refugees would have had every night back home, but have not been able to as of lately.

This meal, she said, would be welcomed for many reasons.

"Now that they're here, having traditional kind of food, we never thought we would have our traditional food in America," said Haideri. 

This feeling of relief Haideri explained is what students that are part of Kitchens For Change have experienced, too.

"It's a good welcoming to Turlock. They'll be welcomed and appreciated, the food will remind them of back home and they'll know they're safe here," said Soraya Najimi, who came to the U.S. from Afghanistan and is a student member of Kitchens for Change. 

Najimi said she remembers missing the familiar flavors of Afghan food and when she learned the club would be making the traditional meal, she was excited.

"Hearing [my peers] say that, 'Oh it smells good' or 'It tastes good,' Afghan food is not really well known, so it's good to hear that," said Najimi. 

Others, like Keean Young, said they felt connected to this particular meal because of family.

"This hits home pretty hard for a lot of us, my mom and her mother were refugees from Saudi Arabia. This was something that I really felt I needed to be involved in," Young said. 

As they cooked, Haideri, Najimi, and Hanifa Karimi, another student raised on the familiar Afghan meal, shared tips and stories that surrounded what they were making. Conversation at the custard station, where students packaged individual servings of brightly colored yellow and pink containers, started with a question — "What flavor is this?" — that became a lesson about Afghan and Persian traditions.

"If this experience teaches them empathy, and then they can take that empathy and apply it to their life and their future, then it's a win-win situation for us," Singh said. 

Kitchens For Change is now looking to the future towards fundraising to be able to cook more meals. Singh said she wants to see the club started at other high schools in the area through partnerships with other restaurants and chefs.

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