By Hajer Naili in New York
Coming together and sharing a meal is the most communal and binding thing in almost every place in the world. New York-based restaurateur Nas Jab, owner of Mazeish Grill on Rivington Street, believes that being able to make a dish and serve it to people is like sharing a bit of themselves and their culture.
In March, Jab, in partnership with Jabber al-Bihani, founder of Komeeda, decided to launch the Displaced Dinners series, a fundraising project in New York to allow newly-resettled refugees to cook their favorite meals and share their story with the customers. The dinners served two purposes: offering financial support to the refugees and changing perceptions on refugees.
So far, the Displaced Dinners series have focused on refugee cooks from the Middle East such as Lutfi who left Syria and was resettled from Egypt to the U.S. with the help of IOM. Starting soon, the dinners will invite refugee cooks from South and Central America and Eastern Europe to prepare their favorite dishes and share their stories.
The Displaced Dinners are now expanding and will be hosted in several locations across the country. USAIM for IOM spoke with Nas Jab about the Displaced Dinners series, its successes and future projects. Excerpts have been edited for clarity:
USAIM for IOM: Dinners with refugees is now expanding to become a national initiative. How did this idea of organizing dinners with refugees start? What are the new locations to look out for?
The refugee dinner series began as a small initiative to help out one Syrian refugee. It was a fairly simple process: cooking for strangers and having them come listen while they eat the food cooked by the refugee. The concept was already in place in the tech world with starts up such as Komeeda. So all we did was add a refugee host and cooked his or her menu.
The response was amazing. Foodies from all over came, and now we will be in the Washington, D.C.* area, Salem, Pittsburg, Houston, Albuquerque, and Memphis.
USAIM for IOM: There have been multiple initiatives to connect refugees with the U.S. public. How using food help change the perceptions about refugees? Do you have anecdotes or examples you can share?
The statement goes “breaking bread together makes things easier” and that’s true. When people share a bite they share a connection and an experience. Also, food is very political. We always hear of rising food prices and food shortages but we never hear about how farming is affected by consumption in cities like NYC, Tokyo, LA, Paris, and London. Food has its own culture and foodie movements have started; initially by increasing the taste of pallets, and now emerging into political activism.
USAIM for IOM: Now, how can we take your initiative a step further to not only change perceptions on refugees but also empower the refugees themselves?
Most other initiatives that I know of or seen in my circle have been protests or fundraisers. The dinners are not in itself a protest or a fundraiser. But rather a food event that happens to also have a social impact. The refugees are learning to be entrepreneurs. We are not hand holding them, they have to learn how to cook on large scale, they have to learn presentation skills, storytelling skills and also learn not to be afraid to ask. The dinners provide money, but more important they provide access to people and people who can help. I am proud to say that after Lutfi – former refugee – got settled, we have now started to host dinners with Yusra. She has now a job interview with a dental office. And this is happening after a year of unemployment trying to find a job. One week in here and one dinner and she got a job interview. I am very proud of that.
A step further is that we will be doing a Refugee Food Festival during the UN General Assembly in New York in September as a political statement. We already spoke to the Mayor’s office, to various restaurants, chefs, and UNHCR.
The message we are trying to convey is that refugees are ready and able to work. They are not a threat. These are people who come from very kind and hospitable cultures and found themselves overnight in these conditions due the failure of governments, policies and war. We also want to show that the American people are kind and accepting and that they are willing to help.
USAIM for IOM: Do you personally relate to the refugee experience? And if so, how ?
Yes, I am Palestinian. We are a perpetual refugee experience across generations.
USAIM for IOM: If yourself had to cook a meal from home. What it would be? And why would you choose to share this meal?
I guess it would be Makloube, mainly because it reminds me of Palestine. I will do it the way my dad would make it, with beef chunks, eggplant and rice. Simple, non assuming and delicious. I would serve it with olive oil from our trees in our hometown, Turmus Aya, in the West Bank. However, most of the time, I am not cooking at home. You can find me at the taco truck in Jackson heights, my favorite and most diverse neighborhood in New York City.
*On August 14th at Darna. Five additional dates in D.C. Locations to be determined.