Memories from Mom: “Tastes from Home” participants share life lessons and favourite dishes for Mother’s Day

This Mother’s Day, join UNHCR for a special look into the memories and recipes of the “Tastes from Home” cookbook contributors

UNHCR Canada
5 min readMay 7, 2021
Aya Wadi and her mother Duha in their restaurant in Thunder Bay, Ontario. © UNHCR/David Jackson

In the free e-cookbook “Tastes from Home: Recipes from the Refugee Community,” UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, features the stories and treasured dishes of 14 refugees who now call Canada home.

Memories of time spent with family preparing or enjoying meals played a pivotal role in so many of their stories, as they carried the tradition of the homes they were forced to leave behind, rebuilding their lives in communities across Canada. More often than not, it was their mothers, grandmothers and other supportive loved ones who helped to shape their love of cooking and the special dishes they hold dear.

This Mother’s Day, three of UNHCR’s “Tastes from Home” contributors — Aya, Tareq and Lucila — reflect on the special influences their mothers and beloved family members have had in their lives from childhood to present day.


Aya is originally from Syria and now lives in Thunder Bay, Ontario, where she owns the Royal Aleppo Food restaurant with her family. Aya and her mother, Duha, contributed three recipes to “Tastes from Home” — date-filled ma’amoul cookies; ouzi, a pastry dish, and muhammara with walnut, a roasted red pepper dip.

Tareq is originally from Syria and now lives with his family in Antigonish, Nova Scotia Tareq is founder and CEO of Peace by Chocolate. He contributed two dessert recipes to “Tastes from Home” — chocolate wrap and nightingale’s nest (‘Ish El Bulbul) made with filo pastry, pistachio nuts and hints of citrus.

Lucila is originally from El Salvador, and now lives in Ottawa with her family. She is a manager with the Catholic Centre for Immigrants. Lucila contributed a trio of recipes to “Tastes from Home” — Salvadoran guacamole, picadillo (a ground beef and potatoes dish) and fresco de ensalada salvadoreno, a drink made from pineapples, cashew apples, oranges, mangoes and other delicious fruits.

How has your mother shaped and influenced your life?

Aya: I consider myself to be extremely lucky to have experienced very effective parenting, starting with having an amazing mom that taught me family is always more important than anything else. I had an inspiring childhood where all our family members, aunts and my grandma were motivated and hardworking.

They all showed me love and respect and the importance of always getting back up after you fall.

Also, the most important thing: they trusted me, my mom and grandma to share their knowledge about cooking and teaching me.

Peace by Chocolate founder and CEO Tareq Hadhad (second from right) stands alongside family members (from left) father Isam, mother Shahnaz, and sister Alaa in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. © Courtesy of Tareq Hadhad.

Tareq: Being in a considerably big household, my mom has been there for all of us, and that increased the responsibilities on her plate; but she always said she had all the time as if each one of her kids was the centre of her universe. My mom has been the person who wanted me to become a physician since I was born. She opened my eyes to how noble being a physician is; and since I started becoming aware of how medicine doesn’t only heal but lifts others, I fell in love with it.

Lucila: My mother, Carlota (“Coty”) Orellana, had me at a very young age and yet always showed resilience amidst the many adversities she faced throughout her life. Growing up in El Salvador, my younger brothers and I were always amazed at her ability to provide for us even through economic hardships. She’s always had an entrepreneurial spirit and a charming ability to speak to anyone.

But her best trait, at least for me, was in her willingness to help anyone she met, who needed a hand.

She always gave all of herself and still had energy to wake up and do more. It’s that fighting spirit, strong sense of self and drive, that I carry with me to this day, and the reason I see her not only as my mother, my protector, and an inspiration, but also my best friend. This is the same type of relationship that I’ve hoped to emulate with my own kids.

Is there a particular dish you remember your mother preparing for you that is a personal favourite?

Aya: Of course, there’s my favourite dish which is yalanji — grape leaves stuffed with rice and cooked vegetables, cooked with a stew of lemon juice and pomegranate molasses. I always enjoyed the smell of yalanji, and in each time I make it with my mom, I feel gratitude to my grandma because she taught me. I was in Grade 9 when she let me roll a whole pot of about 150 pieces of yalanji by myself. She was so nice, gentle and patient that she let me eat all the ones that I rolled in the wrong way. But what she taught me will stay with me forever, and I’ll be happy to teach my kids in the future.

Tareq: My mom loves to make grilled kibbe which are meatballs that are prepared with ground lamb meat, cracked wheat, and spices with walnuts, and that are either fried, baked or stewed. She used to make this dish when there is a new baby born in the family or on special occasions like graduations or birthdays, so it always brings sweet memories of family celebrations and new beginnings.

Lucila Cabrera (centre) sits beside her then five-year-old son Alex (left) and her then six-year-old daughter Erla (standing, right) at the Tulip Festival in Ottawa on May 5, 1991. © Courtesy of Lucila Cabrera

Lucila: In El Salvador, it’s a major tradition over Christmas and New Year’s to make oven-baked chicken covered in delicious and uniquely seasoned tomato sauce (in Spanish known as “gallinas orneadas”). From the moment I would wake up to find my mother already prepping the materials for the feast, I would eagerly linger around and find ways to help, just so that I could be one of the first to get the savoury smell of the chicken, in hopes that I could sneak a taste ahead of my brothers.

The warm memories invoked with this dish are the times spent celebrating with family and friends, with my mother at the centre of it all…

Everyone grabbing for seconds and me always excited for leftovers, since nothing compares to that tomato sauce (with bits of chicken) smothered over rice or inside a Portuguese-style bun loaded with fresh veggies. To this day, I’ve kept her tradition alive, and it’s now my daughter who asks in advance for the “leftovers” to be set aside for her.

Want to try one or more of Aya, Tareq or Lucila’s recipes this Mother’s Day? They’re among more than 30 amazing recipes available in our free e-cookbook “Tastes from Home.” Download your copy now.



UNHCR Canada

The UN Refugee Agency in Canada is dedicated to providing life-saving support to refugees, displaced and stateless people.