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New Dallas cooking class teaches refugees the quirks of American kitchens

Clinic HHM Health is also teaching women how to make common American foods like pizza that their kids are now asking for.


In a fluorescent-lit room of a Dallas health clinic, Styrofoam bowls of marinara and shredded mozzarella line metal tables covered in red-and-white-checkered paper. A poster board with cut-out replicas of oven dials sits on an easel in the corner, and silver balloons that spell “pizza” hang in the front of the room.

“Crust, sauce, cheese!” shouts a woman in a red apron, her fists in the air. “Crust, sauce, cheese!”

Before her sit nine women, all of whom fled their homes in Myanmar to seek refuge in the U.S. — and none of whom have ever made a pizza.


This isn’t a usual scene at HHM Health, a nonprofit organization that provides healthcare to uninsured and underinsured Dallas residents. The makeshift culinary classroom and the monthly cooking classes held in it are part of a new effort at the clinic to help refugees adjust to their new homes by teaching them the quirks of American kitchens.

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Burmese refugees learn to make pizza

Terri Heard, who was once a board member for HHM Health and now leads a women’s group for Burmese refugees, learned that many of the women in the group don’t know how to use the appliances in their kitchens or make the foods their children come home from school asking for. So now, once a month, she straps on her red apron and leads them in a lesson on a food or dish of their choosing.

“You’re going to get messy today!” Heard tells the women as they inspect the balls of dough and bowls of toppings on the tables in front of them. A translator repeats the warning in Burmese.

On the other side of the room, clinic volunteers rock the women’s babies and pull out boxes of building blocks for their toddlers.


“P-I-Z-Z-A,” Heard says over the din of the classroom. “It’s the world’s favorite fast food.”

First, sprinkle the pre-made dough with flour, she tells the women, then knead it with gusto.

“You can pretend it’s your husband,” she says as she punches the dough into shape. One woman slaps her dough onto the table and giggles.

Terri Heard (left) jokes with women in the cooking class she teaches at HHM Health in Dallas. (Shafkat Anowar / Staff Photographer)

‘I really feel free’

With her newly obtained driver’s license in hand, Hning Htang drove herself to the clinic, eager to learn how to make pizza. It is the furthest the 35-year-old has ever driven — an act of independence she says she never dreamed of as a woman in Myanmar.

“How women are treated here in the U.S. is so different,” she said. “In my country, women are lower than dirt. You have to depend on your husband for everything, but here you can make it on your own.”

A year and a half ago, Htang left her life in Myanmar behind to start a new one with her husband in Dallas. She knew she had to escape the country where a deadly military regime took over in 2021 and unleashed a humanitarian crisis that continues to displace more than 1 million people. Htang remembers running for her life as security forces shot into crowds of protesters, many of whom were killed.


“By the grace of God, I could come here,” she said. “I can learn. I can go to college. I really feel free.”

Htang is learning how to live with her newfound freedom. She is studying early childhood education at Dallas College. She meets regularly with the Burmese women’s group where she’s made good friends. She’s learned she loves hamburgers and pizza — a rare and costly treat in Myanmar.

Lal Siam (left) and Hning Htang shape dough to make pizzas in a cooking class at HHM Health. The two women are part of a community group for Burmese refugees in Dallas.(Shafkat Anowar / Staff Photographer)

‘Our commonality is cooking’

“Crust, sauce, cheese!” Heard shouts again, this time getting the women to chant it in unison.


She shows them how to spread jarred tomato sauce across the dough and sprinkle it generously with mozzarella.

“Crust, sauce, cheese!”

A small boy peeks out from under a table while his mother layers mixed vegetables onto her pizza. At another table, one woman spreads cheese on one half of her pizza and vegetables on the other.

Heard then grabs the poster board to show the women how to use oven dials, while volunteers bake the pizzas in a countertop oven. Most of the women in the group, Htang included, don’t know how to cook with their ovens at home, so they use them for storage instead.


Heard didn’t set out to teach cooking classes, but she says she feels called to do it. She wants refugee women to feel cared for and loved, and helping them gain confidence in their new kitchens is one way to do that.

Eventually, the plan is to host cooking classes for other refugee groups, too. Being able to use American cooking equipment and make meals for their families is a challenge many refugees face.

“Our commonality is cooking,” Heard said. “It levels the playing field.”

She’s not sure what dish the women will request for next month’s class. Maybe tacos. Maybe something breakfast related. Either way, she’ll come up with a new chant to help the lesson stick.