St. John's chef and Atlantic colleagues whipping up a feast to raise money for Afghanistan

·4 min read
Chef Celeste Mah recently moved from Vancouver to St. John’s to work on opening a new restaurant with the team behind Raymonds. She was named Canada’s best pastry chef by culinary magazine Canada’s 100 Best in 2019. (Submitted by Mo Duffy-Cobb - image credit)
Chef Celeste Mah recently moved from Vancouver to St. John’s to work on opening a new restaurant with the team behind Raymonds. She was named Canada’s best pastry chef by culinary magazine Canada’s 100 Best in 2019. (Submitted by Mo Duffy-Cobb - image credit)

In honour of Mother's Day, the Atlantic chapter of Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan is hosting a virtual cooking event Wednesday night, featuring chefs representing the four Atlantic provinces, to raise funds to support the charity's efforts in the country.

Four chefs will participate in Breaking Bread, each presenting a course of a full meal. Makis Miri, a mother and daughter team from Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia, will prepare their favourite eggplant dish and share their memories of making this traditional dish. Makis Donahoe, the daughter of the duo, is an active member of the group's Atlantic chapter.

In addition to Miri, the event's lineup features chefs based in the Atlantic provinces. Kim Conway is head chef of the Brickhouse Kitchen & Bar in Charlottetown. Chef Leanne Wiens of LJW Catering in Fredericton came to Canada as a child refugee from Vietnam. Chef Celeste Mah originally hails from Vancouver and is currently in St. John's, working with the Raymonds team to open a new restaurant.

Taliban showed up in the office on a Saturday

Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan is a countrywide organization founded in the late 1990s during the Taliban's previous regime. By the time the Taliban resumed power in 2021, the group had a headquarters in Kabul, staffing more than 20 Afghan nationals in the office or delivering educational training and support throughout the country.

Submitted by Mo Duffy-Cobb
Submitted by Mo Duffy-Cobb

"It's very scary at the moment," said Susan Hartley, the treasurer of the group's Atlantic chapter and an active member on a national level since its early days.

Hartley says the Taliban is aware of their operations in the country.

"They showed up on a Saturday when nobody was there but the security guard."

She says they demanded to see the senior-most employee in the office, "but by the time he got there, they were on to something else."

The group has petitioned the Canadian government to provide refugee status for its 23 staff members and their families. To date, their request has not received approval.

Submitted by Mo Duffy-Cobb
Submitted by Mo Duffy-Cobb

Glimmers of hope

Stephanie Freire of P.E.I. says serving as secretary of the recently revived Atlantic chapter has given her a way to deal with her sense of powerlessness. She had heard stories of professional women losing their careers overnight, including a female banker who was forced to send a male relative to do her job on her behalf.

"I have two daughters; my mind was reeling." Freire first got involved with the organization by attending a fundraiser shortly after hearing news of the Taliban's return to power and the impacts on women in the country.

"I thought this could be a way to get through some of the anxiety I'm feeling," she said. "I might be able to make a difference."

Hartley says she believes conditions for Afghan women have almost entirely reverted to those of the 1990s when she first got involved with the organization.

"Girls are banned from going to school at a certain age. The freedom to associate has gone from women; they can't go out in public without males."

Hartley says her one glimmer of hope is that Afghanistan today has a generation or two of women who have known a better life.

"They've experienced freedom, they've experienced rights, they've experienced education, and they have the technology. Women are protesting in the streets. They didn't do that back then."

An old mission revived

Hartley was instrumental in reviving the Atlantic chapter of CW4WAfghan after the Taliban returned to power in August. However, she has been involved with the organization at national and regional levels for decades.

Hartley said the original Breaking Bread event was a grassroots fundraiser that members would hold in the organization's early days.

"You would invite 10 friends to dinner for a potluck, and they would each bring $75. And at that time, $750 was the annual salary of a teacher [in Afghanistan]."

Under the current conditions, many of the group's programs have been suspended. However, they continue to run an online digital resource for teachers and distribute survival kits with necessities like diapers and feminine hygiene products.

Raising funds and awareness

The primary goal of Wednesday's Breaking Bread online event is to raise funds to support Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan's programs.

Freire hopes it will also raise awareness and interest in the rebirth of the Atlantic Chapter, "that we might just spark somebody who has an awesome skill set, or they need to find a place to connect."

Breaking Bread with Atlantic Chefs is scheduled to take place Wednesday at 8 p.m. NT. Interested viewers can register ahead of time to receive a link to join the event.

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