MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Fatimah Alghazawi bursts through the door bearing plastic crates packed with food for a dinner she’s spent two days preparing.
Her new friend Maryam al Radi has her hands full, too. They are carrying more than 15 dishes in aluminum containers, plus the elaborate garnishes they will add on top.
They haven’t met the people they’ll be entertaining — their new neighbors — but then that’s the point of the Syria Supper Club. The group hosts dinners where refugees cook elaborate meals from their home countries for locals in the New Jersey communities where they’ve settled. The dinners have been taking place since December 2015, when Kate McCaffrey and Melina Macall, members of a local synagogue, wanted to do something about the refugee crisis. They began hosting them with the goal of empowering the recent arrivals and building bonds with their new neighbors.
“(Refugees) come here and they are perceived as victims,” Kate says. “W
e want to just put them on an equal footing and let them be sort of the center of a beautiful meal as opposed to the recipients of financial assistance.”
It’s about removing the stigma of what it means to be a refugee, Kate says. This week they dine at her house in Maplewood, New Jersey.
“I think people need that now more than ever, especially post-election,” Kate says, nodding to Donald Trump’s rhetoric on Muslims during his campaign and the recent executive order barring travelers from seven majority-Muslim nations from entering the United States. “People want this, they want a place to show a commitment to diversity and to American values.”
They fled the same city, only to meet in America
Maryam is comfortable in Kate’s kitchen. She’s cooked for these dinners before, and they joke with each other like old friends. But it is Fatimah’s first time. She and her family have only been in America for eight months. Both fled from Daraa, Syria, where uprisings mushroomed against the government. Both of them spent years in Jordan before landing on US soil: Maryam was there for three years, Fatimah for four.
Though they hail from the same city, the two women hadn’t met until they came to America. They’ve bonded over the overwhelming challenges involved in leaving behind their homes and struggling to assimilate.
Maryam’s home was bombed, shattered, and her family split apart. Her 7-year-old child suffered trauma from the event, prompting them to flee.
But she doesn’t mention that now. Instead, she is in the kitchen with Fatimah fussing over every last detail of this meal that means so much to them. They have few opportunities to have real, meaningful conversations with their new neighbors.
The doorbell rings. The first guests arrive and the kitchen becomes crowded, but there’s a palpable sense of uncertainty: How should they all talk? Who should go first? Maryam and Fatimah, and a few of the guests who are also refugees, speak little English; their U.S.-born guests speak no Arabic.
An apology on behalf of America
About 25 people walk into the dining room to a massive display of food. Fatimah and Maryam beam with pride as the guests marvel at the spread.
There are bright purple spicy pickles, crisp stuffed grape leaves and tabbouleh. Each aluminum pan is filled to the brim with layers of food. Almost every dish is sprinkled with seasoning, or adorned with colorful peppers. A pattern is etched into the hummus and filled with oil for dipping. All the dishes, laid out one next to the other on trivets, cover the length of the entire wooden dining table.
After a brief introduction, Melina, one of the founders of the supper club, broaches the subject of Trump’s executive order. “We all know that the executive order is weighing very heavily on us right now, in particular the travel ban, for our Syrian friends and their families,” she says. “This might seem just like a little dinner but it’s really important. It brings people together.”
An interpreter crosses the room throughout the evening, jumping between conversations and helping everyone understand each other.
“(Fatimah) … wishes there wasn’t the language barrier,” the interpreter says. “Because she’s meeting people, but she’s not really meeting them. She’s not able to converse.”
Fatimah points at the other side of the room.
“See how much they’re talking and sharing ideas, she wishes she could do that,” the interpreter explains.
The two Syrian women greet the group through the interpreter. Maryam is “very happy to be here in America because she met people who treat her like a person,” she says.
“[I am] happy to come here to meet people who treated [us] very kindly. We hope we are able to come out of the trouble we are in, and thank you,” Fatimah says.
Recent NYU graduates and roommates Anna Chen and Jessica Guo found out about the event on social media. Jessica says this dinner was just what she needed: a “communal way to say welcome.”
“And I also wanted to add that, despite what our government might be saying, we are not necessarily what our government says. This is America,” Jessica says. “And welcome.”
The cooks of the night nod as Jessica’s message is translated to them.
“I love American people, despite of their government,” Maryam says. The room erupts in laughter, lightening the mood made heavy by the current political climate.
Amy Koehler, another guest, introduces herself and says her only regret is not having done this sooner.
“Also, welcome,” Amy says with a sigh. “I’m sorry.”
Maryam responds swiftly through the interpreter. “She says thank you, and no need to be sorry.”
Dinner and a discovery
Maryam and Fatimah are not the only refugees present at dinner that night; 29-year-old Hayder Alqaysi has been in America for 10 months, after he and his family fled Baghdad. His mom and his sister Noor are here, too.
Hayder and other guests close to his age try to find common ground. Film, TV, sports. They settle on the Australian Open. Federer or Nadal? They go back and forth like a tennis ball during a match.
The moms among the group are talking, too. They take out their phones and show each other photos of their children, which need no translating.
Doreen Panzer, 51, is here tonight because her youngest daughter Sophie, a senior in high school, has been tutoring young Syrian refugees in Newark. Doreen was inspired to do something herself.
She texts her daughter at the table about how eye-opening the dinner has been. The two exchange a few more texts, and Doreen learns that Sophie has been tutoring Maryam’s children this whole time. Neither of them realized it until a few hours into the dinner.
Anna comes over to the table where Noor is sitting among most of the parents and pulls up a chair. They talk about travel, the frustration of using chopsticks, and religion. They are close in age; Anna is 21 and Noor is 25. Anna says she wants to host a dinner like this one day.
Noor speaks briefly about life before America. Her father has been missing in Iraq since 2007. Once Noor graduated, she, her brother Hayder and her mother left the country to escape the fighting there. They traveled to Turkey and then on to America.
“It is difficult, that they are there and we are here, but this is good life for us now,” Noor says.
Dessert with a slice of humble pie
On the kitchen counter a bright orange sweet coconut cake signals it’s time for dessert.
Doreen and Amy sit down in the dining room, alone together for a minute, taking in all they have learned. They say they are surprised that, after all the families from Iraq and Syria have been through, they have spent so little of this evening dwelling on their tragedy.
“Someone’s father is missing. Can you imagine if it was us? If our father was missing?” Doreen says. “We would not be able to function at this dinner table. And yet there is something about their resilience. They are actually stronger than us.”
Maryam joins them at the table. They ask about the meaning of an Arabic phrase that Maryam used earlier to describe her dreams for her life in America: “Inshallah,” or “God willing.”
“Sometimes, Americans, we’re obsessed with the future, what will it hold,” Doreen says. “And [these women], there is no privilege of future. It is in a sense a beautiful and enlightened moment, it’s moment to moment for them. It’s God’s will.”
“You’re in our country and there’s this perception I’m going to teach you, I’m going to tell you about America, about the way things are,” Doreen says to Maryam. “But it’s actually sobering that, no, you are teaching me.”
The interpreter relays that Maryam wants to thank her for being open-minded. “That requires a certain personality. You could have been like ‘Oh, they’re Muslims, I’m not going to talk to them,'” the interpreter says.
“Not here!” the American women say.
They ask Maryam about her life in Syria, and the interpreter, who has gotten to know Maryam at a few of these dinners, tells them about Maryam’s house being bombed, her child being traumatized. It is too emotional, she says, for Maryam to tell again and again.
The table is silent. The women reach their hands over and clasp Maryam’s hands. She wipes a tear from her face.
“You have strength more than you know,” Doreen tells her.
The women hug and kiss on the cheek before they leave for the night.
As Maryam walks away they ask whether there are things these women need, supplies for their homes. The interpreter says, for Maryam at least, she’s got six boys, so her biggest need is clear: Detergent.
They all burst out laughing, reminded of how similar they are.
As they clear the tables and put away extra food, Hayder sits alone in the living room looking at his phone. He turns the phone to show what he’s doing. He’s typing in all the English words he heard tonight to find the translation and add them to a running list. He adds words he wants to be able to use next time.
“I learn more each time,” he says. “I will get better. It will get better.”