Food has long brought cultures together, from early merchants and traders building global routes in search of spices to the melding of cuisines as travel and migration grew.
And immigrants for hundreds of years have made their living in ethnic restaurants, from Chinese migrants brought to the United States to build railroads in the 1800s to Indians operating curry houses in colonial Britain.
Now, sponsors and supporters of Syrian immigrants to the United States and to Canada have been holding informal welcoming dinners, giving the uprooted newcomers opportunities to be embraced by the communities through food.
Refugees often have little more than what they can carry when they arrive in a new country. But some have found a way to use the flavors of their pasts to raise money, build a new life, and help find acceptance in their new homes through the Displaced Kitchens project by Nasser Jab and Jabber Al-Bihani.
Displaced Kitchens puts refugees, or “chefugees,” at the helm of a five-course meal—overseeing and cooking, narrating the meal with stories of their journeys, and spelling out what they may need, be it a job, a place to sleep, or money for groceries and rent.
The dining customers pay $65 for the meal, then more often than not reach into their pockets with generous offers to help, says Jab, who labors like a match-maker to fill the refugees’ targeted needs.
“If I know someone needs housing or jobs, I’ll make sure that happens,” he says. “It focuses completely on them, on their story.”
The Palestinian-Latino Jab, whose energy and passion for his work is palpable, was born in Jordan, raised in the Middle East, and attended college in New York City. In March, he started Displaced Dinners at his small restaurant, the Mazeish Grill on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
It became Displaced Kitchens when he moved it to a larger space, a café next door, that can hold 60 people, and word spread, he says.
“I started getting calls. ‘Can you do this in D.C.? Can you do this in Houston?’” says Jab.
“People want to leave the dinner feeling good. This is a way for them to feel empowered, that they helped someone. They go back to work on Monday and be like, ‘I changed this person’s life.’”
One Syrian refugee who recently cooked for Displaced Kitchens had no job skills, could not speak English, and was finding no support in the local Syrian community because he was gay, Jab says.
He found a home with a diner who attended his dinner.
A Syrian woman, shy, sheltered, and stranded in New York from the rest of her refugee family, hosted a dinner and got the money she needed to cover $2,400 in back rent from a group of wealthy hedge fund lawyers, he says.
“Americans are consumers. They want to pay $65. They already feel good,” says Jab. “Then they come, they hear the story and they say, ‘How can I help out more?’”
Food is often the topic of discussion among immigrants learning English in America, says Michelle McEvoy, who volunteers at an English conversation group that meets weekly in New York City’s borough of Queens. The immigrants there have shared Nepali dumplings called momos and tortillas from Latin America. Others come from Armenia, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan.
“It’s funny. We actually spend a lot of time talking about food,” McEvoy says. “It’s Monday evenings from 6 to 7:30, so people feel a little hungry, but it does show you just the commonality of it.”
Sara Green, who runs an organization called Art for Refugees in Transition (A.R.T.), and attended a recent Displaced Kitchens event, agrees: “Food is universal. It makes you feel happy. It makes you feel safe. When you walk by a bakery, how good do you feel and how much does that bring back? There’s something very secure about it.”
Syrian food and other Middle Eastern delicacies were front and center at Displaced Kitchens’ showcase appearance at New York’s Refugee Food & Arts Festival in late September.
Diners sampled Moroccan cigars, olives with preserved lemon and garlic, vivid magenta pickled turnips, creamy fava bean hummus, beef and walnut kibbeh and eggplant mutabal topped with glistening pomegranate seeds, accompanied by frozen mint lemonade and a rum punch sweetened with jallab, a smoky syrup made from raisins, dates, bitters and spices.
In the kitchen was Fadila Mammo and her daughter Fayza Gareb, who left Syria when war broke out, escaped to Turkey and have been living in New Jersey for slightly more than a year. The civil war in Syria has been raging since 2011, forcing some 5 million people to flee, according to the United Nations.
“Whatever she makes is really delicious, and I don’t say that because she’s my mom. A lot of people tell her that,” says Gareb.
“It’s food making you really happy,” she says. “It’s the dish or the love that the person put in the dish, who made the dish, so it’s really making you happy.
“I eat a lot. Look at me,” she says, pointing to her waistline. “It’s because of my mom.”
Mammo works at Tanabel, a New York catering company that employs refugee women and organized the Middle Eastern buffet. Also showcased at the Refugee Food & Arts Festival was Emma’s Torch, a Brooklyn café that provides refugees with culinary training and job assistance through a paid apprenticeship program.
Meeting immigrants in person through their cooking helps assure that donations go directly to them, says Carmen Colon, a retiree who teaches computer literacy in Brooklyn and attended the festival.
“If you want to donate, you want to make sure it’s getting to where you want it to go,” says Colon. “Along with getting to know the people and their stories, you really do feel you’re helping. It’s not that quick check in the mail kind of thing, and nowadays with so many tragedies going on, I want to help.”
Planning to host a Displaced Kitchens dinner soon is Tatenda Ngwaru, who is seeking asylum in the United States from Zimbabwe.
Life was unsafe in her African homeland because she is an intersex woman, she says. Some 1.7 percent of all births are estimated to be intersex, described by the U.N.’s refugee agency as having “bodily variations from culturally established standards of maleness and femaleness, including variations in chromosomes, gonads and genitals.”
Without formal U.S. work authorization, Ngwaru, who studied business administration, has been unable to get a job for more than a year, which she survived by sleeping on friends’ couches, she says. She finally got official permission to work this month.
“Oh honey, I need to make some cash now,” she says, planning a Zimbabwe menu that will include corn-meal dishes, chicken stew, and potatoes.
“We have special spices, but I believe that every meal, when it’s made with love, has a special spice,” she says.
Serving a meal from one’s homeland provides more dignity than just seeking a handout, says Kourosh Mahboubian, a New York City art dealer and supporter of Displaced Kitchens.
“It’s saying, ‘I am someone. This is who I am. I’m worth something, whether or not I have an education, whether or not I have means at the moment and probably I don’t, whether I’m in a place that is completely foreign to me, surrounded by people who don’t understand me and maybe don’t like me, I have something to contribute.’”
A Displaced Kitchens cookbook of recipes by resettled refugees is newly available online.