A Syrian chef prepares a meal and shares his journey to the US
Displaced Dinners place setting.
When Lutfi Mohammed, 31, got off a 12-hour flight from Egypt at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City, the person who was supposed to pick him up wasn’t there. So, he borrowed a phone from a policeman, called a friend for the address of where he was supposed to go, and then hailed a taxi. He had $70 in his pocket. The cab ride was $90.
Mohammed arrived soon before the Trump administration's travel ban went into effect, as one of the 18,007 Syrian refugees the United States has admitted since 2012, according to the Migration Policy Institute. He recently told a group of people his story over a dinner of Syrian dishes he prepared as part of Displaced Dinners, a series of dinners hosted by chefs who are now refugees in the United States. The project is a product of Komeeda—a digital marketplace for people to discover new restaurants—with the goal of bringing people together over a shared meal, while giving refugees a chance to share their country’s food and their personal story.
In the small and intimate Mazeish Grill, a middle eastern eatery nestled in the heart of the Lower East Side, just a few steps below street level, 10 people clustered around a large communal table to share dinner and a story with Mohammed. The intermittent sounds of pots and skillets clanging and the crackling of hot oil mixed with the lilt of Mohammed’s voice as he spoke.
Mohammed is gay, and he had been rejected by his family back in Syria because of it. He left Damascus for the Gulf states as a young adult, doing work in visual merchandising, developing floor plans and three-dimensional displays in order to maximize sales for retailers. Wherever he went and set up life, however, his sexual orientation made living a struggle with the authorities. In Bahrain, he was arrested for attending a party where drag queens were present, and in Dubai, he was targeted by a sting operation. He eventually returned to Syria and stayed at a friend's home in Damascus. The civil war was escalating, and he could hear the bombs going off and see the smoke and fire they left in their wake. So he left for Egypt and—through an arduous application process—was eventually resettled in the United States as a Syrian refugee.
As he told his story to the patrons of Mazeish Grill, food that Mohammed had cooked was making its way to the table, served in large bowls by Nasser Jaber, the restaurant owner. The appetizers included salatat jarjeer (a mix of arugula, fresh mushrooms, onions tossed in olive oil, and pomegranate molasses and olive oil), batata harra (cubed potatoes tossed in cilantro, garlic, and red pepper), and kibbe (a beef and bulgur dumpling served with a side of tahini). At times, Mohammed had to lightheartedly chastise people, reminding them to eat, because they were sitting in stunned silence, digesting the experiences he was sharing.
Jabber Al-Bihani, the founder of Komeeda, said he hopes these dinners serve as a platform for people to tell their story, removed from the daily churn of the news cycle in which we are enmeshed. “We’ve veered away from emotion, human attachment, and giving people the benefit of the doubt,” he tells me before dinner, as Mohammed and Jaber could be heard chopping potatoes in the kitchen. “We’ve forgotten the human and emotional aspect, which is what has gotten us this far, and to negate that now is the wrong thing to do,” he says. “So when Mohammed comes here and tells his story, there are only 10 people here, not the world.”
Al-Bihani thinks that food presents a unique way to bring people together in a nonadversarial way. These dinners give people a way to support Mohammed (to whom half the proceeds of the dinner will go) and allow them to engage in dialogue they might not otherwise.
“I’m going to guess that the people who attend this haven’t actually met a refugee before,” he says.
Food is a language with which we engage with the world—and in the wake of social instability, a heavily politicized medium. That’s why in recent years, more and more initiatives like Displaced Dinners have emerged as part of different efforts to foster conversation and bridge cultural divides. The People’s Supper is one such project, which, after Trump was elected, set out to host 100 meals over the first 100 days of the administration to “prove that a group of thoughtful people who differ from one another—politically, racially, religiously, and generationally—can sit down over a shared meal, go beneath the headlines, and understand the real stories that have shaped who we are,” according to its website. In Australia, Joining The Dots, a nonprofit, drives the Welcome Dinner Project as a way to connect citizens and refugees over a dinner and tap into something most people are looking for: a sense of community. In LA, the owners of a Mediterranean restaurant Momed recently announced they would be hosting weekly “immigrant dinners” to highlight the refugee crisis.
“It’s an interesting moment, because if you think about this from the social science perspective, it's a coded way of expressing your social and cultural class as well as your political views,” says Dr. Willa Zhen, a professor at the Culinary Institute of America and a sociocultural anthropologist with a specialty in food anthropology. “Since the most recent election cycle, people know that certain events, brands, or places might be aligned with one group versus another group. I think what’s different now is that people are now much more likely to declare a group and bring their views to the forefront on all ends of the spectrum.”
That’s where these types of events enter the fold, says Zhen. They have become increasingly popular because they allow patrons to signal their progressive political views without necessarily articulating them in explicit terms.These sort of dinners are a way of talking about politics without talking about politics, even when they are framed as apolitical.
[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]We might be open to having this delicious food being prepared by the refugees, but we are not necessarily receptive to understanding the greater nuances.[/quote]
Zhen says this is something we are going to see more and more of, particularly because food culture is no longer a privilege afforded only to the wealthy. It sits squarely in the mainstream of our digital culture: We Snapchat meals, post brunch on Instagram, and switch filters on a photo of an espresso on Facebook.
These events present food as an access point to immigrant traditions and cultures, as though they could be understood through consumption. Human value is reduced to productivity and production—the pretense is that immigrants can earn the right to stay because of what they make. In these settings, their cuisines are highly curated and made edible to Western palates. “With these kinds of events and any of these touristy [types] of colonialist ways of eating, you also deal with tokenism,” says Zhen. “We like selective bits or [certain] parts of [other] cultures. We will take the chicken breast, but we don't want the gizzards for a meal, for example. So we might be open to having this delicious food being prepared by the refugees, but we are not necessarily receptive to understanding the greater nuances.”
Over entrees of za'atar sprouts (crisp Brussels sprouts sautéed with za'atar and sumac toasted nuts) and makloube (a traditional dish served in the Syrian style of lamb, eggplant, rice, tomatoes, and potato with a cucumber mint yogurt side) one of the diners asked Mohammed if, despite his struggles in Syria, there was anything he missed.
“Everything,” he says. But he doesn’t want to see the country as it is now. He thinks it’s better to remember it as it was, before the conflict.
Jaber and Al-Bihani believe food is one of the few touch points where you can break the barriers of mistrust. We need to break that barrier, Jaber says, because this isn’t just about Mohammed. “This barrier is also about the 6-year-old girl on a bus who might have her hijab pulled off by other students, it’s about people who want to integrate into society, to feel like they belong,” he says.
Jaber argues that it’s ok if people use the event this as a cultural signifier or as a form of activism. “I think one of the problems with the left is that we think that if somebody isn’t doing something everyday, they aren’t involved. That’s a big problem,” he says. “There are a lot of people who fall in the middle, who don't have the capacity or bandwidth to be marching in the streets. People want to help and are good. This is a simple way for them to do so.”
Over a dessert of zalatimo baklava à la mode (cashew stuffed baklava served with a scoop of ice cream) from the recipe book of the original baklava makers of Jerusalem, Mohammed exchanged contact info with many of the dinner participants. One, who worked at Tiffany’s, said he would speak to his boss about a potential job for Mohammed in visual merchandising. As I left the restaurant, Mohammed and a few of the participants were still talking. From outside, I could hear them laughing, making plans to get together again.
As Jaber says, “You need to extract that little bit of goodness, because if you extract it from a lot of people, it’s actually a great act. So on the individual level, that’s where it starts.”