The first thing you notice about Kaltum is her quiet presence and lilting voice. When she turns to talk to you, her smile widens slowly, then gradually spreads to light up her whole face. A refugee from Sudan, Kaltum has experienced years of war, suffering, and displacement. She and her family traveled from one refugee camp to another, one country to another, until they made their way to Utah in 2013.
Sudan has struggled with ongoing turmoil since the country gained independence from its British-Egyptian rulers in 1956. Northern Sudan is primarily Muslim, but the southern portion of the country is a mixture of Christian and Animist believers. These religious differences have led to decades-long conflicts over Arab-Muslim rule in the country, including the First Sudanese Civil War (1955-1972), the Second Sudanese Civil War (1983-2005), the secession of South Sudan in 2011, and the war in Darfur. Over 1.5 million people were killed during the two civil wars, and the continuing conflict/genocide in Darfur has displaced over three million people and killed more than 400,000.
Kaltum becomes very quiet when describing her past. She pauses for several minutes to gaze out the window, lost in her own thoughts, after talking about the two sisters who have waited for two years to leave their refugee camp in Egypt to come to the U.S. She speaks wistfully about her parents, who are living in a camp in Sudan. Her father is ill, and she wishes she could be there with him. She moves her head vigorously from side to side as she describes her early life in Khartoum as if the motion will shake out the horrible memories of those times.
But she brightens noticeably when she starts to talk about her catering business and her new food truck. Her full name, Um-Kaltum, means “Mother of Kaltum” or more specifically, “Mother of the One with Plump Cheeks.” She said that’s why she calls her catering business “Mother of All,” because her cooking makes her the mother of all (she didn’t mention the plump cheeks part, but after looking at her delicious food, it’s easy to see how that could be the result!) She learned to love cooking as child by helping her mother in the kitchen, and she is eager to share her culinary traditions with the people of Utah. She flips through her phone for photos of her eye-popping, mouth-watering, Sudanese specialties: gima, a crispy potato dish of peas, beef, and Sudanese spices; sambusa, a triangular pastry filled with vegetables and spices; falafel, a deep-fried doughnut made of chickpea flour; and basbusa, a sweet, syrupy semolina cake.
What was it like growing up in Sudan?
I grew up in Soba Al Hilla, a neighborhood in Khartoum not far from the Blue Nile. Every day there was fighting, there was killing. (Shakes her head). Killing, killing, and more killing. We went to live in a camp to get away from the fighting. I got married, and my husband and I went to live in Hassan City. Still there was fighting, killing. We moved to Kalma camp on the outskirts of Nyala; it’s one of the biggest refugee camps in Sudan. We lived there for four years. Then my husband went to Libya to drive a truck because there was no money in Sudan.
What happened after your husband moved to Libya?