Haha, Sahrawi refugee turned TV chef finds the recipe for success
Through a TV show, Haha, a refugee from Western Sahara, shares creative recipes to help her fellow refugees improve and diversify their meals while adopting nutritious eating habits.
She is a mother, grandmother, passionate chef and a TV show host! Haha Ahmed Ghaid Salaih, 50, fled Western Sahara with her family in 1975, taking refuge in Boujdor camp in Tindouf. She is one of thousands of Sahrawi refugees living in five refugee camps in western Algeria who live through one of the most protracted and forgotten refugee situations in the world.
For more than forty years, they have depended on humanitarian assistance.
“As refugees we are limited to the same food every month and we don’t often have fresh vegetables and meat.”
Since 1986, the World Food Programme (WFP) has assisted them through monthly rations of staple foods like wheat flour, barley, rice, pulses, vegetable oil and sugar.
Food assistance covers basic needs and provide the recommended energy requirement of 2,100 kilocalories per person per day. But receiving the same food for years on end, means many have grown weary of eating the same food every day.
“As refugees we are limited to the same food every month and we don’t often have fresh vegetables and meat,” says Haha who is a mother of six and works as an administrator in the camps’ education system. “I always varied my children’s meals by coming up with new recipes, adding local spices and combining ingredients in new ways.”
Haha was lucky to have gone to school in Libya and Algeria but she returned to the camps to get married and start a family in 1984.
Recipe for success
In 2011, with the help of the Italian non-governmental organization, Comitato Internazionale per lo Sviluppo dei Popoli (CISP), the Sahrawi community organized a contest to find a presenter for a new cooking show for their local TV station. Haha submitted the winning recipe.
“I only had the food distributed by humanitarian organizations, I didn’t have any meat, so I proposed a simple yet tasty dish that could be cooked with the food I had,” she says. “My recipe was made of canned mackerel with potatoes and sauce made of tomatoes and onions with bread.”
And Cooking With Dignity was born. Haha’s show teaches refugees how to make the most out of the food available in the camps.
“I guess it was my destiny to become the presenter of the TV show, because when I submitted my recipe, I did exactly what the station had in mind: making simple, yet tasty and healthy dishes using food assistance.”
In 2014, Haha expanded the show’s focus by inviting guests, like doctors and nutritionists, to convey messages on a healthy diet.
“I wanted to give my show more credibility, by inviting people who can explain things better,” Haha says. “The recipes that I cook during the shows when I have guests are designed around the topic we’re discussing. For example, when we have a doctor who talks about diabetes I cook meals without sugar.”
The celebrity refugee chef
Almost all Sahrawi refugees, young and old, watch Haha’s show after the evening news at 21:30. The show has varied between weekly and monthly formats.
Since starting the show, Haha has become a celebrity in the camps. “Whenever I go to wedding or other social events, people come to talk to me and give me feedback — sometimes good feedback, sometimes criticism like, ’I didn’t like the last recipe you made’ or ‘the sound of the boiling water is too loud.’ I am doing my best,” she laughs.
In 2017, WFP partnered with CISP to support Cooking with Dignity, which is part of its larger effort to improve the nutrition status of the Sahrawi refugees. WFP is reorienting its approach in nutrition to focus more on communication to give refugees the information they need to make sound decisions about food, health and well-being.
While continuing to support the TV show, WFP is also working to expand outreach to the refugee community by bringing the discussion into homes and schools in partnership with Haha, CISP, the Sahrawi Red Crescent, and the larger Sahrawi refugee community.
Doing what you love with lots of love
“I like to cook. I myself not wanting to fall into a routine in the kitchen and I want to come up with new ideas.”
Haha is not paid for her work on the program, but finds value in the experience nonetheless.
“I like to cook. I myself not wanting to fall into a routine in the kitchen and I want to come up with new ideas,” she says. “I want to help my people in any way I can, I am one of them and they trust me.”
After 7 years, Haha knows the recipe for success: simplicity both in cooking and eating. The TV show has helped refugees make better use of their food assistance, but Haha is not entirely satisfied. The show’s format is limited and does not allow for direct exchange with viewers. “I want to shake things up. We can do more than just a TV show. I want to get out of the studio and bring the discussion back into people’s homes, talk directly to people,” she says.