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When Refugee Chefs Host Dinners, Every Morsel Tells a Story

Serving a meal from one's homeland provides more dignity than just seeking a handout.

Food has long brought cultures together, from early merchants and traders building global routes in search of spices to the melding of cuisines as travel and migration grew.

And immigrants for hundreds of years have made their living in ethnic restaurants, from Chinese migrants brought to the United States to build railroads in the 1800s to Indians operating curry houses in colonial Britain.

Now, sponsors and supporters of Syrian immigrants to the United States and to Canada have been holding informal welcoming dinners, giving the uprooted newcomers opportunities to be embraced by the communities through food.

Refugees often have little more than what they can carry when they arrive in a new country. But some have found a way to use the flavors of their pasts to raise money, build a new life, and help find acceptance in their new homes through the Displaced Kitchens project by Nasser Jab and Jabber Al-Bihani.

Displaced Kitchens puts refugees, or “chefugees,” at the helm of a five-course meal—overseeing and cooking, narrating the meal with stories of their journeys, and spelling out what they may need, be it a job, a place to sleep, or money for groceries and rent.

The dining customers pay $65 for the meal, then more often than not reach into their pockets with generous offers to help, says Jab, who labors like a match-maker to fill the refugees’ targeted needs.

“If I know someone needs housing or jobs, I’ll make sure that happens,” he says. “It focuses completely on them, on their story.”

The Palestinian-Latino Jab, whose energy and passion for his work is palpable, was born in Jordan, raised in the Middle East, and attended college in New York City. In March, he started Displaced Dinners at his small restaurant, the Mazeish Grill on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

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