Homemade food brings people together – World Refugee Day 2018
Catonsville, Maryland – For centuries, homemade food has brought people together.
The fellowship hall of St. John’s Grace church in Catonsville was no different. On a Sunday afternoon in April 2017, the church hall was filled with the savory smell of home cooking, the happy chatter of voices, and 130 hungry church and community members.
Madiha, the woman behind the homemade food, was a Syrian refugee who had recently come to the United States with her husband and four sons. The event was a Syrian Supper and Cultural Exchange.
The afternoon was inspired by the NPR story “Syria Supper Club: Reaching Out To Refugees, One Dinner At A Time” which tells the story of Muslim women from Syria and Iraq who cook meals for their Jewish neighbors. Once the meal is ready, the Muslim women and their husbands join the dinner party and both groups enjoy an opportunity to learn about each other while sharing a meal.
St. John’s Grace’s Syrian Supper and Cultural Exchange came together quickly. I met Madiha only months before and we became fast friends. We had much in in common: we’re both mothers of four boys. Two of Madiha’s sons are teenagers, while three of mine are. Both of our youngest are very active, independent-thinking free spirits. They keep us on our toes and sometimes give us gray hair.
I grew up in a working-class family in southwest Baltimore. Madiha grew up a world away in Syria, where she lived an idyllic life until war shattered the country. When it became too dangerous to stay, the family endured a frightful trip out of Syria into Jordan. They were assigned to go to America three years later. When they landed in Baltimore in June of 2016, they knew no one and spoke no English.
Madiha, who is social by nature, made a few American friends – people who checked on the family, helped them learn English and navigate living in America, and just enjoyed being with them. I was lucky to be one of these friends. I was also lucky enough to join Madiha’s family at meals and experience her fabulous cooking.
The idea for St. John’s Grace’s Syrian Supper and Cultural Exchange started small, but we ended up filling the hall to capacity and turning people away. In April of 2017, 130 members of 6 area churches from different denominations as well as members of the Catonsville community came together to share homemade food and learn about each other.
Before the meal, Madiha’s 13- and 15-year-old sons stood on the stage and told the audience about their lives in Syria, Jordan, and America. After dining on a scrumptious meal of kabsa (chicken and rice), kibbeh (meat pies), yalanji (stuffed grape leaves) and tabbouleh, many waited for an opportunity to speak with Madiha and her boys.
They wanted to know about the homemade food they were eating, what part of Syria they family had lived, how long they had been in the US, how they had come to live in Baltimore, and what the boys liked to do for fun. The diners wanted to share their stories of learning Arabic, traveling to Syria during peaceful times, and being stationed in the Middle East. Watching these connections being made was very satisfying, but watching Madiha and her family feel welcomed, accepted, and celebrated was heartwarming.
A second Syrian Supper and Cultural Exchange was held in April 2018 and sold out two weeks prior to the event. The April 2017 supper is part of the new documentary This is Home , which follows four Syrian families, including Madiha’s, as they resettle in Maryland.
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World Refugee Day 2018
This month, to celebrate World Refugee Day on June 20, US-born Americans across the United States honor newcomer Americans with a story from their state – a story of a refugee, asylee, or immigrant they admire. From soldiers to politicians, employers to students, social workers to business people – everyday Americans tell their stories to celebrate the goodness and courage of the newcomers who make the United States a better place.
Every day in the month of June, the Refugee Center Online will publish a new story from a different state. Check back for new stories each day: therefugeecenter.org/world-refugee-day.