This is the second story that NJ Spotlight has devoted to the growing grassroots movement by local religious groups and ad hoc volunteers to provide assistance and friendship to Syrian families trying to adapt to a new life in America.
The fireplace is on. A couple of westies are running around excitedly. And two tables are set in the dining room.
The dinner party on this brisk Saturday night in December in Maplewood, NJ, has a distinctly foreign flare: Chicken shawarma and falafel are on the menu. And while the conversation includes typical talk about work — it also deals with war.
“Every day is becoming terrible,” explains Hayder Alqaysi, who fled Baghdad with his mother and sister. “You understand what I mean? I cannot live there.”
This is what is known as Syria Supper Club, in which Muslim refugees from Syria and Iraq join groups of mostly Jewish New Jerseyans for dinners that are part fundraiser, part cultural exchange. Women from the refugee families cook the elaborate feasts; the Americans host the meals. In January alone, 14 meals are scheduled, all with different cooks.
Hosting this week is Kate McCaffrey, a member of Montclair’s Bnai Keshet synagogue, which has organized various efforts to help refugees from Syria and Iraq acclimate to the New Jersey community.
“This refugee project really came out of a sense of outrage over the refugee crisis last summer,” said McCaffrey, an anthropology professor at Montclair State University.
“I was reading the news and it was so upsetting, seeing all these people at sea, drowning at sea, and feeling our country was doing nothing. I reached out to the rabbi and said: ‘What are we doing?'”
Among the first unique actions taken by McCaffrey and her partner on this project, Melina Macall, was a Christmas Eve dinner that Bnai Keshet hosted in 2015 in which Syrian Muslims and New Jersey Jews feasted on the traditional American Jewish Christmas meal of Chinese food.
The synagogue later hired one Syrian woman to cater monthly Saturday lunches after Shabbat services — now, there is talk of her catering Bar and Bat Mitzvahs.
It’s that talent for cooking among many of the Syrian women who have settled in places like Paterson and Elizabeth that inspired the Syria Supper Club idea: How about these women cook dinners at Americans’ homes, enabling them to meet their new neighbors while making some much-needed money in the process?
“We have multiple objectives to this. One part is to fundraise,” McCaffrey says.
Attendees sign up online and pay $50 to attend the meal. The money goes to the Syrian cooks so they can buy the food — then, the women keep the rest. Given the difficulty their husbands have had in finding work in New Jersey and the limited resources provided by the federal government and charitable organizations, the funds are critically helpful.
“But I think in addition to that we are providing some affirmation of their talents, of their capabilities, of their humanity in a political climate where they’ve been demonized. And for the guests it’s an opportunity to get outside their bubble to meet people different from them.”
When dinner is served, the Syrian women sit down and eat with the guests, often along with other refugees who have become friends with the organizers. Language barriers are overcome with laughter, Google Translate and volunteer translators — tonight, it’s Mazooz Sehwail, an Arabic professor at Montclair State University.
It took three days for the cook on this night, Khlood Al Nabelsi, to prepare a delicious banquet-style Syrian dinner. The presentation, with ornately-cut vegetables and spices sprinkled in a pattern on top of the hummus, makes dinner guests gasp as they gather around the table and introduce themselves.
“My name Khlood, from Syria,” Al Nabelsi says. “Me, happy. I am happy for cooking.”
Dinner guests tell Al Nabelsi — and Alqaysi, an Iraqi refugee here with his mother and sister — about how they themselves are the children and grandchildren of Jewish refugees who fled countries in Europe beset by war, persecution and religious strife.
“The symbol of America, the Statue of Liberty, the poem engraved on the bottom, says: ‘I lift my lamp beside the golden door,'” says Sheila Fisher of Fort Lee. “And let’s all hope America leaves the golden door open.”
Over dinner, there are questions, like: Why is Al Nabelsi keeping her jacket while she eats? The answer isn’t totally clear, but it leads to a conversation about how some refugees lack heat in their new apartments.
Later a simple question about how to say “cheers” in Arabic warrants an explanation about Muslim restrictions on alcohol.
And like at any dinner, there’s talk about work. Alqaysi, who earned a degree in electrical engineering before he left Baghdad, just started working at the drive-through at a Dunkin Donuts in New Jersey. He has funny stories to tell about trying to understand American coffee orders, handing over as many as 10 sugars and distinguishing between whipped cream and with cream.
Alqaysi unabashedly says that he wants American friends; social isolation is a challenge in the refugee community. “I want to make more friend, because I don’t have friend,” he says. “I need to know this culture. I want talk to them, like I talk to you.”
President-elect Donald Trump, who once vowed to end immigration of all Muslims, including refugees, isn’t mentioned at dinner. There isn’t any talk of Gov. Chris Christie, who described 5-year-old Syrian orphans as potential national security threats.
Nonetheless, one of the Jewish guests, Melissa Polaner, has politics on her mind.
“It’s important for me to express my political views in this way, and it’s important for me to express my religious views in this way — to make people understand that Jews and Muslims have so much in common and there’s so many more things that connect us than separate us,” she said. “And a lot of that gets lost in the national dialogue, but when you are sitting across from someone at the table it’s easy to remember that.”
After dinner, several of the women are in the kitchen cleaning dishes and kibbitzing. McCaffrey, who grew up Catholic and converted to Judaism when she married her husband, threw herself into this work after her children graduated from high school. She constantly texts with dozens of refugees, helping with problems big and small. On this night, she finds out that one of the cooks in the Supper Club just lost her father. Their home was bombed in Homs, Syria.
McCaffrey turns around and makes some tea for Al Nabelsi, who will soon be heading back to her apartment, where her husband is babysitting their three children. Before she leaves, in broken English and with help from a translator, Al Nabelsi strains to show her deep appreciation for McCaffrey.
“I’m speechless in here about her kindness,” she says. “She’s the person who does not differentiate between different sects, different religions — a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim. She loves to help humans regardless of their religion.”
Dinners for the Syria Supper Club are booked through March.