On Saturday evening (Jan. 28), as the consequences of a recent US immigration ban against citizens of some Muslim nations began to play out in airports and courts across the country, a family of resettled refugees from Syria and about a dozen Americans gathered in Maplewood, a suburb of Newark, N.J., for the latest “Syria Supper Club.” The twice-weekly fundraiser for refugees attempts to forge a connection between families by pairing Syrian cuisine with American hospitality.
US president Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration, issued a day earlier, banned citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the US for 90 days, and stopped the admission of all refugees for four months—shutting the door (already only slightly ajar in the US) for those fleeing from war-torn Syria. The order was met with widespread criticism, protests, and confusion. Many were stunned at the speed at which it was implemented; others who have watched the steady rise in anti-immigrant rhetoric, less so.
Among those already providing support to refugees, Trump’s position on immigration has been galvanizing. Since its launch on Sept. 11, 2016, the Syria Dinner Club has relied on word-of-mouth and social media to recruit hosts, chefs, and diners. Recently, response to the event has been tremendous—dinners are booked until March.
“People see Syria Supper Club as a way to resist,” said Kate McCaffrey, the club’s co-founder. “They are desperate to help refugees as a way to counter these xenophobic policies.”
Refugee resettlement agencies in the US receive only limited government funding. Groups like the Syria Supper Club play a critical role in supporting newly arrived refugees. At Saturday’s dinner, the joyful atmosphere was punctured with apologies. Both McCaffrey and Melina Macall, the club’s other co-founder, reassured the Syrian family in attendance that they were welcome. “Most people want to have you here [in the US] and we want you to feel it,” Macall said during introductions.
The evening’s chef was Fatima, assisted by her two daughters, Amna and Zahra. The teenagers helped garnish the fresh and fragrant tabbouleh with tomatoes fashioned into flowers, and ferried the kabsa (rice cooked with chicken and seasoned with cardamom and cinnamon) from the oven to the dining table under their mother’s watchful eyes. Their father, Ahmed, who transported the food and his family from their home in Elizabeth, N.J., chatted with McCaffrey.
The family, which did not want to disclose their last name, arrived in New Jersey in 2015 as part of a UN resettlement program, three years after fleeing from Syria to Egypt. Shortly after their arrival, the family met McCaffrey and Macall at a “traditional” Jewish Christmas Day Chinese dinner for newly arrived refugees, organized by the pair.
Syria’s refugee crisis was dominating the news at the time. A photograph of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless body, washed ashore in Turkey, encapsulated the horror of a situation that had forced nearly 12 million Syrians from their homes. In the US, which had just committed to taking more refugees, the crisis had become a polarizing political issue. Since then, nearly 19,000 Syrian refugees have been resettled in the US, according to the state department.
The Christmas dinner represented the start of a commitment by McCaffrey and Macall to help Syrian refugees. They launched the Syria Supper Club with the dual purpose of promoting cross-cultural understanding and raising money for refugee families. In 2016, the organization held 11 events; this January alone, the Syria Supper Club has held 14 events, due to increased awareness of, and interest in, the group. Diners are asked to donate at least $50 to take part in the meal, and all proceeds are given to the evening’s chef and his or her family. Similar projects exist in London and Berlin.
On Saturday, diners savored Fatima’s Syrian bounty: sesame seed-flecked falafel accompanied by tangy hummus and smoky baba ghanoush; grape leaves stuffed with rice and vegetables; kibbeh (fried parcels of bulgur wheat filled with minced lamb); spicy shish taouk (chicken skewers), and other Syrian dishes. They marveled at the spread which took Fatima and her daughters two days to prepare. “I love to make it all and love to eat it all!” said Fatima, with the help of the evening’s translators, South Orange, N.J.-based couple, Marwan and Sabeel Abulsoud, Arabic speakers who have roots in Egypt.
John McErleane, a speech pathologist, and Sarah Pettway, a mental health counselor, both participated in the Women’s March on Washington the day after the inauguration, and have been calling their congressional representatives daily to register their disapproval of the current administration’s policies. They traveled from Queens to Maplewood after hearing about the dinner club on the late-night comedy show Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. “Resistance is more than big gestures,” said McErleane. “It’s also about getting to know your neighbors.”
Sabeel Abulsoud, a project manager who has Egyptian and French ancestry and whose husband is an immigrant, says she decided to join the supper club because she was “terrified and disgusted,” at the new administration’s stance towards refugees. “A great and powerful nation should not be shutting our doors to people seeking those freedoms that we brag about having,” she said.
Towards the end of the evening, the dinner conversation turned to politics and the day’s events. Amna, who attends a public American high school in Elizabeth with few Arabic-speaking classmates, admitted that she missed her life and friends in Egypt. “People aren’t warm to us and I don’t feel comfortable there,” she said. But, she added, gatherings like the Syria Supper Club allow her to share her story, and the stories of her community, on her terms.
“New Jersey, despite its remarkable cultural diversity, is strikingly segregated,” said McCaffrey. “A central focus of these meals is to bring people together to break bread, to challenge some of the hateful rhetoric percolating out there, and to diminish isolation for our newest neighbors.”
As diners headed home, a federal judge granted a temporary emergency stay on Trump’s order, barring the deportation of people with valid visas who landed in the US. Ahmed shook his head and said that he paid little attention to the news, but was concerned for his family. “We feel welcome here, but we miss Syria—the communal celebrations of certain holidays, the call to prayer five times a day, our friends,” said Ahmed. “We have not been harmed, but wonder how all this will affect our future.”