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How these D.C. chefs helped feed migrants bused to the city from the southern border

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Buses of migrants from the southern border are still rolling into Washington, D.C. They're being sent by Republican governors in states like Texas and Arizona. And once these migrants arrive, they have few resources. So a couple of D.C. chefs have stepped in to help. NPR's Gus Contreras has more.

(SOUNDBITE OF POTS CLANKING)

GUS CONTRERAS, BYLINE: Inside a steamy home kitchen in northwest Washington, Ana Monge is busy making tamales.

ANA MONGE: (Speaking Spanish).

CONTRERAS: Monge's been making hundreds of tamales a week since August - 300 on Tuesdays and about 200 on Saturdays. Recently, she made an order of 400 in one morning. The banana leaf-wrapped tamales she's making are going to migrants who've recently arrived in Washington. Christian Irabien is a D.C. chef who was moved by the stories of immigrants arriving on buses.

CHRISTIAN IRABIEN: The immediate sensation was like, how can I help? Coming to this country as an immigrant is already a hard enough journey as it is, of leaving everything you know behind in the hopes of finding something better. It definitely hit home.

CONTRERAS: Irabien teamed up with Chef Erik Bruner-Yang, who also wanted to help out. Both chefs are from immigrant families and have volunteered to cook in the midst of real-world crises.

IRABIEN: A thing that we say often is that, you know, as cooks, oftentimes we don't know how to do a lot of things, but we do know how to cook. And people need to eat.

CONTRERAS: Before the pandemic, Irabien went to Tijuana to cook meals for Hondurans migrating north. And Bruner-Yang was in Poland earlier this year, feeding Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war. They came up with a plan to make tamales, a meal that would be familiar to the mostly Venezuelan migrants making the journey to Washington. So with money raised from a GoFundMe, they hired Ana Monge. She's a mother of one of Bruner-Yang's employees. She'd already been making and selling tamales as a side hustle, but now they'd be going to people in need. Next, the crew needed a way to get warm tamales into the hands of hungry migrants.

JESSICA CISNEROS: My name is Jessica Cisneros, and I currently am a volunteer with Mutual Aid Migrant Solidarity (ph).

CONTRERAS: Jessica Cisneros has been helping out for about six months now, distributing food and more.

CISNEROS: For this, there was this clear vacuum where no one was doing anything. No one in power was doing anything to respond. And there was such a huge need. And it was something that, like, I could just jump right into.

CONTRERAS: Since buses started arriving, D.C.'s mayor, Muriel Bowser, has established an Office of Migrant Services for the city. But volunteers like Cisneros are essential. And Cisneros says it's been tough juggling it all - her normal job, raising her daughter and helping new arrivals feel welcomed and cared for - but that the work is worth it.

CISNEROS: I feel like there's a lot of people that lament the state of the world but, like, aren't actually doing a lot about it. And so I feel like I've met so many people who are really doing something about it. And there are these webs, you know, of people that care in D.C. And so it's been lovely to get tapped into those.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

CONTRERAS: On one of the first cold days of the fall, I meet Cisneros in Northeast Washington. The trunk of her car is full of winter clothing for the newly arrived migrants unprepared for the weather. It's not tamale night, but she's passing out fresh mango and pineapple Chef Irabien had left over from a catering gig.

Osvaldo is 37 and originally from Venezuela. He asked us not to use his last name due to his immigration status. Osvaldo was checking out some cozy sweatpants and clothes for his kids. They made the journey on a bus from Texas.

OSVALDO: (Through interpreter) I have a brother who lives in Virginia, and I came with my 12-year-old son. My wife and three other children are on their way to meet us.

CONTRERAS: Osvaldo tells me everything has been hard about their journey, but that they're doing it for the future of their kids.

OSVALDO: (Through interpreter) The hardest thing about this is being without your family with everything that's going on. Traveling through the jungle isn't easy, and a lot of people died along the way. Everything is hard, but it will sort itself in the end.

CONTRERAS: Osvaldo says he hopes to be allowed to work soon but isn't quite sure what's next. For now, he's thankful for the help. Back at the restaurant, Chef Irabien says as long as migrants continue to come, they'll try to find a way to keep feeding them.

IRABIEN: It's not like you can just make one meal and you're done. People need to eat every day. Being able to cultivate community within our immigrant circles is what makes everything be able to flow very, very easily.

CONTRERAS: Gus Contreras, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gus Contreras