On Stuffed Grape Leaves—& Seeking Refuge in America

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Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more. In My Family Recipe, a writer shares the story of a single dish that’s meaningful to them and their loved ones.

Rhode Island.

That’s where my family was first assigned to live, once we’d been granted refugee status by the United States. My parents packed the few belongings they could, said goodbye to family, and boarded a plane to New York City, leaving the former Soviet Union with just a few American dollars in their possession.

My mother is from Kazakhstan and my father is Armenian, born and raised in Baku, Azerbaijan. Amidst rising tensions between Armenians and Azerbaijanis, he fled Baku for what is now Lvov, Ukraine in 1988, where he met my mother and began the grueling process of seeking refuge in America.

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But upon landing at JFK, my parents were told that plans had changed. Rhode Island couldn’t accept any more refugees at the time, so we’d no longer be living there. And just like that, months of dreaming, researching, and poring over information about our new home were rendered useless. We’d be getting on a different plane, to a different, unknown city, with a different future in store for our family.

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My dad used the last of his cash to purchase baby food, and we boarded a flight to our final destination: Twin Falls, Idaho.

Dolma—or stuffed grape leaves—is the dish at the heart of one of my earliest childhood food memories. The mixture of meat, onion, garlic, and herbs is so intoxicating that I’d often try to sneak raw teaspoons of it as a kid when my parents weren’t looking. In my early 20s I cooked my family’s Armenian recipe on my own for the first time, and the scent immediately catapulted me back to my mother’s kitchen. Variations of dolma can be found across the Middle East and in Mediterranean countries, with Armenia, Greece, and Turkey each convincingly laying claim to the dish’s origin.

The very best dolma are made with the freshest grape leaves. Later on in my childhood, once my family settled into a permanent home in the States, my grandpa would plant vines right outside the kitchen window so that my mom and grandma could reach out and trim them with kitchen scissors as needed. Canned leaves are the next-best alternative, and thankfully high-quality options are now commonly accessible. In 1993, however, canned grape leaves weren’t a realistic grocery store item in southern Idaho.

One day, not long after our move to the states, my parents decided to load me up into the stroller and take a walk through town. Along the way they noticed some vines sprawling out into the road, and upon closer inspection, realized the tangled greens were actually grapevines. Overjoyed by the serendipitous discovery on a suburban road and eager for a taste of home, my parents plucked a dozen leaves, tucked them into their pockets, and continued along the walk.

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Not much further down the road, we were surrounded. Multiple cop cars pulled up alongside us, sirens screeching.

The police took my parents back to the grapevines. The owner of the property—whose house was so far past the road that my mom and dad didn’t even consider the greenery could belong to somebody—came down to confront them. The cops explained that we needed to apologize to the owner, then got into their cars and left us alone with him.

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My mom attempted to say sorry to the man in broken English —she was the only Sarkisov who had any grasp of the language at the time. He surveyed the three of us slowly.

“You know,” he said, “I could shoot you right now and no one would care.”

It’s difficult to move past such an experience. It’s even more difficult to come to terms with the fact that this man was probably right. Because we were refugees—with no English language skills, no family to contact, and no realistic way of defending ourselves—we were completely vulnerable to him or anyone else who might have wished us harm. And yet the encounter ultimately serves as a reminder of how fortunate my family is: We walked away shaken but unharmed, while every day refugees around the world are stopped at borders or killed in streets, often over even less than fresh grape leaves.

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My ancestors survived the Armenian genocide. My grandparents fled not once, but twice during their lives. My parents dedicated themselves to making sure my future was in America. It is never lost on me that I am a part of the first known generation of my family to not have to flee, to not fear for my life simply because of where I live.

It’s a narrative as relevant today as it was in the ’80s when my father fled Azerbaijan. As families are forced to leave behind their homes, loved ones and treasured possessions are left behind as well.

But memories persevere. Recipes persevere.

The very act of mixing together these ingredients, wrapping them in grape leaves and tucking them into a pot serve as a reminder that my family’s culture will persevere, too—regardless of where we must run.

Got a family recipe you’d like to share? Email [email protected] for a chance to be featured.

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