Peacemeals in Iraq: Lessons in Resilience

The first few weeks of classes have flown by in a haze of shopping trips, learning people’s names, making new friends, and cooking, cooking, and more cooking. The classes at the Center are in full swing. Each of the students have been through some pretty terrible circumstances in the past few years. They were referred to the therapeutic cooking class by their case managers, who refer individuals into the Center’s classes as a means of skills building and rehabilitation. That is how PeaceMeals fit so well into the Center’s plans for the cooking classes: students don’t just learn how to chop onions and sanitize a kitchen. They also learn how to taste food again, and savor it, and manage stress instead of constantly living in crisis mode.

The underground fruit market where we bought ingredients for class.

The underground fruit market where we bought ingredients for class.

After the first class on sanitation and safety, we learned lessons on knife skills and nutrition. The ladies are experts at feeding masses of people with very limited resources. It’s so wonderful to watch them create feasts with the ingredients we have on hand. The best part of these classes has been watching them come out of their wounded – and sometimes traumatized – shells. During the first class, barely anyone spoke except to ask me exactly the next step they should do in each recipe. They were afraid of getting it wrong and had very little confidence to take initiative and ask questions about the lessons. The lesson on self-care skills was full of awkward silence.

And now, just halfway through the course, the women are talking with each other and asking loads of questions, and – most importantly – laughing.

The students work hard to prepare 3-5 recipes per class. We used the color wheel in the background to learn about balanced nutrition and macronutrients.

Now, after Hana* and I explain the recipes, the students will take charge and cook without having to verify if they are doing it right. They will share stories in their own language, and ask about each other’s personal lives. This is moving in the right direction.

Each day when the food is ready, we sit down together in one of the classrooms and eat and have more guided discussion about self-care skills, stress management, values and goals, their daily struggles, and other relevant psychosocial topics. In yesterday’s class, we talked about how exercise can be helpful for managing stress, and gave some ideas of easy exercises they can do at home.

I admire their resilience. I admire their abilities to laugh, despite what they’ve been through. I admire their skills and ingenuity in the kitchen. Once again – as in most PeaceMeals – I feel like I learn more from others around the table than they could ever learn from me.

Every meal is a lesson in resilience. We sit down and enjoy it, in defiance of the evil that has tried to crush their spirits. 

I know you are curious to learn about what we cook and eat in Iraq. In my opinion, Kurdish food is not spectacular, and uses a pretty limited repertoire of produce, rice, bread, chicken, and lamb. But with that, the Kurds do have a knack for spicing things well. I will write a separate post with more recipes, but for now, here’s one of my absolute favorites: Muhamara. It’s actually a Lebanese recipe that has made its was to Kurdistan, it is a dip for bread (or cucumbers for glutards) made from roasted red peppers and walnuts.

Besides being an explosion of flavor, this recipe is also rich in Omega-3 Fatty Acids, which have been shown to have protective potential against depression and inflammation. They are critical for cognitive and behavioral function, not to mention they may reduce the risk of heart disease. They are one nutrient that may help boost your mood and reduce brain fog. Walnuts are a good vegetarian source of Omega-3s. Other sources include: fatty fish like salmon, sardines, tuna, and mackerel, as well as chia, flax, pumpkin seeds and their oils. So enjoy this feel-good recipe!

*Name changed for safety reasons


Muhamara, a dip made from roasted red peppers and walnuts was one of my favorite recipes!


  • 300 grams (3 cups) raw walnuts
  • 3 red bell peppers OR 2 large jars of pre-roasted red peppers in brine
  • 1/2 medium onion, chopped small
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • salt, to taste
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses (You can usually find this in most Indian or Middle Eastern grocery stores, or at specialty stores like Whole Foods. It’s worth it, trust me, and there are many uses for it, including drizzling on a salad or chicken for a sweet-sour kick.)
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • Bread or cut veggies, to serve


  1. Soak the walnuts in water for 2 hours, then drain.
  2. Roast the red peppers over the stove flame until the skin is black.  Alternatively, heat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit/200 Celsius. Cut the pepper in half from top to bottom and lay on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Roast for 20 minutes, then flip over and roast for 20 minutes more. Add 10-20 more minutes if the skin isn’t yet black. You want a really roasted, soft pepper. Place in a plastic bag until cool, then peel the black skin off and slice. OTHERWISE, simply drain the jar of red peppers from the brine. 
  3. Place the walnuts in a food processor and blend with the other ingredients.
  4. Add the roasted red pepper slices and blend until it forms a paste. 
  5. Serve with bread or crudités. 


  1. Christelle September 6, 2016 Reply

    WONDERFUL!!!! We are so proud of you Cath! Robin and I will be making this dip for our Bible Study that will kick of end of September. So glad to see that you are using your amazing gifts to bless others. We miss you!

    Christelle and Robin

  2. Katie Dwyer April 27, 2016 Reply

    I am so glad that you are there, and so amazed to hear the transformation in the participants in this short amount of time.

    I can’t wait to hear more about these classes and your work. Thank you for sharing your experiences with us, and for doing this essential work in the world!

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