After coming to the U.S., Ahu Hettema dealt with immigration issues for more than 10 years. Unable to visit her family or her native home of Turkey, she spiraled into a deep depression. When her mother came to Honolulu to cook Ahu her favorite Turkish dishes, the kitchen helped her heal. After running a farmers market stand selling Turkish foods, she and her mother opened the award-winning restaurant Istanbul Hawaii in 2020. Together, they make the foods they love to eat. In this edition of Voices In Food, Ahu shares how food saved her.
I came here first as a student, and then I had immigration issues. When I had immigration troubles, they didn’t treat me as a human being. I think there’s a reason they call you “alien.” It’s like you don’t belong here. I think words have very strong meanings, emotional meanings behind them. It was very sad for me.
And I wanted to go back home during that time, but my attorney said that if I left, they would never let me come back again. My immigration problem lasted about 10 or 11 years.
My husband, who is a U.S. citizen, literally sued the United States government for not getting back to me and deciding on something without any sufficient evidence. I cannot sue. I am no one. So when he sued as a citizen, they got back to us. All they did was apologize, and they gave me my green card, but they didn’t even compensate me for my attorney fees or anything like that.
“At one point, [U.S. immigration] broke my psyche. … But I had my cooking skills, and I knew how to cook good food, so they couldn’t take that away from me.”
– Ahu Hettema
And during that time, it was very depressing because they took away my identity, my ID cards, my work permit. Basically, what they did was they took away everything they could — like I do not exist here. So they said, “You don’t exist anymore on paper; therefore, you should leave.”
My loved ones that I love so much, like my grandparents, they died, and I couldn’t visit them. I couldn’t see them. I felt like I was trapped.
I couldn’t go work anywhere, because you’re not allowed to work. I couldn’t even get my driver’s license. So, naturally, all those things really upset me mentally, and I developed PTSD. I didn’t want to live anymore. After I was diagnosed, they gave me really heavy drugs to calm down my anxiety and depression.
I started to develop really dark dreams. And this anxiety captures you, it captures your heart, and you start to feel so hopeless about life.
My mom came to Honolulu, and she said, “This is not a way to live. We’re going to make you the foods that you love. We’re gonna work through this together.” She came with spices and all the food that I love to eat. She cooked me lentil soup that I love. She cooked me fresh baklava that I love. She made Turkish delights for me. She made all these Turkish breakfast dishes for me.
“I think there’s a reason they call you ‘alien.’ It’s like you don’t belong here.”
– Ahu Hettema
We started to cook together, and I started to feel good because I was eating really good food — we were going to farmers markets to pick up our produce and ingredients. We started to cook so much because I felt really good when I was doing it, and we couldn’t eat all the food, so we shared it with our neighbors.
One of my neighbors told me, “We need food like this in Honolulu. Nobody’s doing elevated Mediterranean, Middle East food.” She said, “Why don’t you go share this food with the farmers market, because you’re already going there to pick up your produce anyway.”
My mom always wanted to have a restaurant, so I said, “Maybe let’s try this.” We opened a tent at the farmers market, we got super popular, and that hobby turned into a business. And I told myself, “If we are gonna turn this into a business, then I need to open the best of the best in Honolulu.” I found a really nice location for my restaurant, and my husband and my dad basically built my restaurant.
At one point, [U.S. immigration] broke my psyche. It took me time to construct it back, and it made me stronger. I wouldn’t change anything if I could go back, because I think I wouldn’t be who I am today if I hadn’t gone through all those emotional states. It was almost like they ripped everything away from me. But I had my cooking skills, and I knew how to cook good food, so they couldn’t take that away from me. And they couldn’t take away the fact that I want to share my culture and my food with people in Honolulu.
And even though I wasn’t able to go back home, I was able to, with my food, bring back my memories — happy memories. I make my grandmother’s pancakes on my brunch menu. Each time I make them, I can go back to the moments she was making them for me, and it makes me feel happy.
So, when I started cooking and sharing all those foods with people, it just really helped me. It gave me hope. I felt like life had so much to offer. It is not my time to leave; there’s a lot to do in life.
I think every human being goes through those moments of anxiety, struggles, negative thoughts, depression. But when you find something that makes you feel good, and you are able to give meaning to what you do, you will beat the odds.
I am completely healed, and I feel very good about life. And actually, the problem is, I feel so good and have so many ideas that I want to do now, because I feel like I was stuck in a loop in my brain for a long time. Now I have my energy back, and I feel very grateful.
If you or someone you know needs help, dial 988 or call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also get support via text by visiting suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.