Health care workers line up for Thanksgiving sambusas and Somali tea outside Children's Hospital on Thanksgiving morning. The sambusas, from Minneapolis food nonprofit We Nurish, are a gesture of gratitude to health workers. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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In Kayf Ahmed’s family, sambusas appear on the table at every gathering—including Thanksgiving.

“If people get together, they’re almost always there,” she said.

This year, with the surge of COVID-19, many Minnesotans won’t be getting together: Governor Tim Walz’s new executive order prohibits gatherings with other households for four weeks, including Thanksgiving. 

But health care workers will be sharing the day with strangers—caring for COVID-19 patients in nearly full intensive care units.

So Kayf plans to bring the holiday to them in a 14-foot bright green food truck, offering free sambusas filled with traditional Thanksgiving foods. It’s a way of connecting in a year when gathering is off the table. It’s also an expression of gratitude.

“We wanted to say thank you,” said Kayf, executive director of the food nonprofit We Nurish. “And what better day to say thank you to health care workers than Thanksgiving?”

Since launching at the end of September, We Nurish has served over 14,000 meals to homeless and low-income people in south Minneapolis through home delivery and the food truck. Depending on the day, the truck can be spotted in Cedar Riverside, at Park Church, or outside the Diamond Lake Townhomes. The group also delivers meals to unhoused people on the Midtown Greenway and at Martin Luther King, Jr. Park.

“It kind of restores dignity and it just puts a smile on someone’s face, and that to us is just so gratifying,” Kayf said.

On Thanksgiving, the We Nurish food truck will stop outside Abbott Northwestern Hospital and Children’s Minnesota, at the intersection of East 25th Street and Chicago Avenue South. There, Kayf plans to provide Thanksgiving sambusas on a bed of stuffing with garlic mashed potato and cranberry dips, as well as pumpkin pie and Somali tea. 

Earlier in the day, the truck will park along the Midtown Greenway to offer sambusas to people experiencing homelessness.

Anyone else can stop by, too, for a pay-what-you-can donation that will support the free meals, said Corinne Horowitz, We Nurish’s director of programs and innovation. She hopes the sambusas can bring cheer to people spending the holiday apart from loved ones.

Modifying the menu from meat and rice to sandwich and a smoothie

Kayf and her husband previously owned a restaurant, Capitol Cafe, on Franklin Avenue. 

There, she discovered her passion for food justice. She noticed that her area of Minneapolis didn’t include many restaurants or grocery stores offering healthy meal options. 

“Typically, East Africans—we eat meat-heavy, carb-heavy meals,” she said. “We wanted to offer a menu that offered them the meat option, but presented with a different variety of sides. Then they could do a sandwich and a smoothie, rather than rice and a huge portion of meat.”

This menu was also a way to explore whether her customers were open to these different food options.

“The reactions we got were like, Wow, this is what we need more of,” she said.

In addition to their storefront cafe, the couple ran a meal delivery service for homebound seniors and others who needed them. They continued that program after leaving the cafe in 2019. When the pandemic and economic crisis hit this spring, they received a surge of requests for meal deliveries. 

Then, in the civil unrest following the police killing of George Floyd, grocery stores and restaurants closed or burned down. That left food options for south Minneapolis even more limited.

Kayf and her husband decided it was time to expand their meal delivery program. They created a nonprofit, purchased a food truck, and obtained a grant to fund their work.

What makes the perfect turkey sambusa?

We Nurish plans to serve 1,000 sambusas on Thursday, filled with Thanksgiving flavors: turkey, collard greens, squash, sweet potato, and onion. (There’s a vegetarian version, too.) 

For this Thanksgiving celebration, they can’t rely on a traditional family recipe.

Instead, We Nurish’s staff tested different permutations of fillings, expertly rolling and folding them into individual sambusas. Because of social distancing, the staff grabbed their sambusas after they finished cooking and dashed to separate corners of the room to sample them. 

The first batch had too much meat and not enough seasoning. The next round was too heavy on collard greens and too spicy. They tried putting cranberries in the filling before deciding to create a cranberry dip instead. They kept testing until they found a combination that was just right.

The flavors mixed in the sambusa, the bed of stuffing, and the two different dips—all this replicates the experience of a Thanksgiving dinner, Horowitz said.

“Everything gets mixed together, and that’s what makes it sound good,” she said. “It’s a miniature version of that.”

Growing up a Somali American in Boston, Kayf didn’t follow all the American traditions for Thanksgiving. But it was always a day to be thankful, in the company of family. 

These days, traditional American and Somali foods line her table. There’s always a turkey at the center. Lasagna, rice, and goat meat often make appearances. For dessert, her family eats traditional Somali cake instead of pie. 

And of course, there are always sambusas.

“The idea of combining the two cultures, that’s to me what sambusas really symbolize,” she said.

In this challenging year, instead of being thankful just within her family, Kayf wanted to find an opportunity to say “thank you” in a collective way—and nourish the whole community. 

That means feeding the health care workers at the front lines of the COVID-19 surge. As these workers risk their own lives to care for community members sick with the virus, this is a way to care for them, show gratitude, and help them feel less alone during the holidays.

This year, doctors and nurses may not be able to enjoy their grandmother’s pie or argue with their uncle about the football game. But Kayf and her staff will be happy to serve them a Thanksgiving sambusa.

Alas, no food truck can provide what health care workers really need at the end of 2020: a long post-turkey nap.

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.