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Women's group in Sicily uses traditions of coffee and tea to brew unity amid migrant crisis

“Integration comes through simple gestures, such as sitting next to each other while sharing food and good conversations over a hot cup,” said the founder of the group.
Illustration of tea being poured into teacups, while people eat together.
Hosts of an itinerant, women-led storytelling circle called Tea Time Tales use tea and coffee traditions in working to bridge a divide often created by politics.Jamiel Law / for NBC News

CATANIA, Italy — In a kitchen at Isola Quassud, a community center in eastern Sicily’s Catania, Elsa Habte roasts coffee beans on a pan over an open flame, while her daughter Meninet Teferi cuts a himbasha, an Eritrean sweet bread, into small slices.

“It’s Eritrean coffee time!” Teferi proudly announces to a small audience of curious Italians gathered around her mother and aunt, whose figures blur behind steam from the coffee.

The event is part of an itinerant, women-led storytelling circle called Tea Time Tales. The hosts use the rituals of tea and coffee, typical of Middle Eastern and African cultures, to get together and tell stories about their traditions and journeys to Italy, bridging a divide often created by politics.

Meninet Teferi is the representative of Eritrean culture within the community.
Meninet Teferi is the daughter of Eritrean refugees who fled during the conflict with Ethiopia in the 1980s. Valerio D'Urso

While the team is made up of five women, their work is supported by guest speakers at every meeting, reflecting the diversity of people coming to and leaving this island.

The storytellers are mainly former migrants turned longtime residents of Catania, although asylum-seekers who landed during the refugee crisis also participate and who occasionally share their stories to practice their Italian. The aim is to show the two faces of migration, both in times of crisis and as a natural, human phenomenon common throughout centuries.

“Integration comes through simple gestures, such as sitting next to each other while sharing food and good conversations over a hot cup,” Emanuela Pistone, founder of the initiative and of the community center Isola Quassud, said. “Italy needs more opportunities to re-discover the pleasure of listening to other voices and get familiar with the new flavors enriching our table.”

Emanuela Pistone, right, introduces Maryam Khoshluie during Persia Time held to coincide with Yalda, the Persian solstice festival.
Emanuela Pistone, right, introduces Maryam Khoshluie during Persia Time. Renée Purpura

The project began in 2010 when, after two decades in Rome, Pistone returned to Sicily to volunteer at migrant help centers. Moved by the personal stories she would hear about and witness every day, she realized the need for an outlet featuring migrants telling their own narratives. “I thought it was necessary to give them back an essential right: letting them explain themselves.”

One generation removed, still connected

While the older women cook, Teferi, who’s 26, entertains the guests with anecdotes from her ancestral homeland. “Until the 1970s, the majority of Eritrean women were housewives and chatting over coffee was a daily opportunity to bond,” she said.

“As you call it here in Sicily, it’s our cuttigghio time,” using the word in Sicilian dialect for “gossiping.” She then pours coffee out three times, explaining that the last one is a symbol of blessing.

The community welcomes about two dozen participants at a time to keep an intimate, homey atmosphere and ensure the active involvement of all guests. The venue changes often — many locals offer their spaces in rotation — and includes theaters, restaurants, libraries and even a bike repair shop.

While participants drink and eat, the women usually share conversations, tales, myths and legends, as well as music, poems and dances. They revive the lost Sicilian tradition of oral storytelling, also practiced in many of the migrants’ countries of origin, which include Morocco, Senegal, Afghanistan and India.

Teferi loves to share a first-person essay she wrote in the wake of the 2013 Lampedusa shipwreck, when over 300 Eritreans were killed at sea. “I was born in Catania, but raised as an Eritrean through language, food and culture,” she said. “I grew up listening to my mom’s stories about our land of the Red Sea and fight for freedom, but I was too young to fully grasp their meaning.”

The daughter of refugee parents who escaped the conflict with Ethiopia in the 1980s, she feels the drama of the many fellow Eritreans who today face a different journey from the one her parents did. Holding dual nationality, she feels equally Italian and Eritrean and is convinced every migrant can pick their own identity, rather than be defined by others.

"I studied politics because I hope to serve my two homelands, one day," she said. This month, the Italian parliament will discuss a bill that, if approved, will allow those who were born to immigrants and attending schools in Italy, like Teferi, the right to citizenship without having to wait until they turn 18.

Seeking sanctuary in a changing Italy

The circle’s meet-ups often revolve around a theme — a specific country, a traditional celebration or an ingredient. A few months ago, Maryam Khoshluie led the Iranian Tea Time during Yalda night, the Persian solstice festivity. An asylum-seeker from Tehran, she moved in 2009 to Catania, where her husband’s family had settled when searching for political stability after the 1979 revolution.

“In Iran, after a meal, we usually offer guests sweet refreshments and entertain them with conversations,” Khoshluie said. “When we arrived in our new neighborhood, we opened the doors of our home to encourage Sicilians to get to know us, offering food and drinks from our tradition.”

Kholoud Marei, left, and Maryam Khoshluie prepare Middle Eastern sweets to go with tea and other hot drinks during one of the community's events held at Orient Experience.
Kholoud Marei, left, and Maryam Khoshluie prepare Middle Eastern sweets to go with tea and other hot drinks during one of the community's events held at Orient Experience.Valerio D'Urso

Her favorite part of the Tea Time Tales is explaining the preparation method of her nan-e badami and shirini nargili, Iranian cookies made with almonds and coconut respectively. But Deborah Cicero, who attended the group’s gatherings for the past year, prefers Khoshluie’s chocolate and peanut butter araki cake.

“I grew up in a household where difference only means enrichment,” she said. “Considering the current political climate in Italy, finding local initiatives that portray migration as a basic human right rather than a threat are increasingly necessary.”

Over the past year, the Italian populist government led by Matteo Salvini, the former deputy prime minister, has created a climate of insecurity for immigrants in the country, mirroring Trump’s immigration policies. But after a recent government crisis, Salvini was replaced by Luciana Lamorgese, a former security chief with decades of experience managing migration hotspots.

Cicero is hopeful this change will mean a break from the previous government’s hard-line policies and fewer media depictions of Italians as racist people.

When the noise of people chatting becomes more lively, Karim Alishahi, Khoshluie’s husband, adds to the room’s atmosphere with the melody of his setar, a long-necked stringed instrument popular in Iran.

“When people listen to these stories, they see an artist, a mother, a family working hard to make it. And finally see us as human beings, too” Alishahi said. Although the circle remains strongly women-led, some men offer their support while maintaining a behind-the-scenes role.

Karim Alishahi
Karim Alishahi plays his setar. While his wife and daughter usually take care of the food and storytelling component, he uses his traditional music to create a connection with Italian guests. Renée Purpura

In Tehran, Alishahi was a music teacher, but when he came to Sicily he had to adapt to a new life and began working as a handyman. That didn’t stop him from playing his music, and he often takes the stage at public events in Catania, invited by fellow Sicilian artists.

“There are so many hidden gems hiding behind every migrant. We all seem the same when watching the news, but each one of us has a unique story to share,” he said. “Unexpected changes can occur to anyone anywhere, we can’t control our lives. Migration is often dictated by bigger circumstances.”

Finding common ground in love and family

Among the latest additions to the “tea ladies” — as the storytellers have been affectionately nicknamed — Kholoud Marei, 56, is the shyest.

A Palestinian from Jericho who loves baking basbusa sweets and brewing mint tea, she moved to Catania 36 years ago. Contrary to popular beliefs that would automatically associate that choice with her refugee status, as is the case for more than 5 million Palestinians worldwide, she did so to reunite with the love of her life.

“When I visited my brother living in Sicily, I met a fellow Palestinian student who got a scholarship from the University of Catania. I fell in love with him immediately and after many months [of dealing with bureaucracy], I came back here to stay, to marry him,” she said, blushing.

She believes her family is like any average Sicilian family because, like many local mothers, she is about to bid farewell to her daughter, who is moving to northern Italy for work. “Sicily, as a Mediterranean crossroad, has always been a land of migration, both for us coming and for Sicilians leaving,” Marei said. “This makes us similar. As mothers we all struggle, the economic situation here is bad. So we have to cope with our kids living far from us.”

The community has also represented a chance for storytellers to learn more about themselves, and each other.

“We developed genuine friendships with many of our guests, and among us, too,” Khoshluie said. “I taught Kholoud some Iranian recipes and laughed when we realized they’re the same Palestinian dishes called with different names. We built a network of empathy and mutual care.”

Maryam Khoshluie, right, and her daughter Faranak Alishahi during a Persia Time event at the community center Isola Quassud.
Maryam Khoshluie, right, and her daughter Faranak Alishahi during a Persia Time event at the community center Isola Quassud. Khoshluie's daughter often takes part as a storyteller explaining Iranian culture to Italian guests.Martina Caruso

For them, the circle even became a source of economic empowerment. Today, both Marei and Khoshluie work as professional cooks at Isola Quassud’s Home Restaurant and have occasionally been commissioned by some Italian guests drawn by their culinary talent.

In this island located between the Italian peninsula and Northern Africa, migration is nothing new, and it’s reflected through the local cuisine. Currently about 200,000 foreigners reside in Sicily, accounting for 4% of the local population.

“Food is the perfect metaphor of integration,” Pistone said. “Most recipes require ingredients coming from different corners of the world to exist. Why shouldn’t that work for modern societies, too?”

Reporting for this story was supported by a grant from the Migration Media Award, funded by the European Union.