Tears, Fears & Sierra Leone Soup at New Jersey’s Refugee Cafe

Matt Katz, WNYC | January 31, 2017 | Social

Credit: Matt Katz / WNYC
Pastor Seth Kapper-Dale of the Reformed Church of Highland Park with Najla, of Syria, who is living here seeking asylum.
The inviting aroma of paneer tikka masala might be one reason why Global Grace Cafe is bustling for lunch on Monday afternoon.

But the other reasons are in the kitchen, where refugees, asylees and asylum seekers from across the globe cook every meal at this cafe — food from India on Monday, Syria on Tuesday and Wednesday, Jamaica on Thursday, and Nigeria on Friday.

“In addition, we have Sierra Leone soups every day of the week,” said Seth Kaper-Dale, pastor of the Reformed Church of Highland Park, which runs the cafe. 

And business is good: Since President Donald Trump was inaugurated, about twice as many people have been lunching at the restaurant. Call it a culinary response from this community near Rutgers University, a way of pushing back against Trump’s flurry of anti-immigration declarations.

Kaper-Dale founded an affiliated nonprofit, Interfaith Rise, which resettles asylees and refugees — eight so far in 2017 alone. Last week he was preparing to welcome a Syrian family and two single mothers with their children from war-torn Congo, when Trump temporarily halted all such immigration. Their donated beds are sitting stacked, unused, at the church.

“One of their reasons about being excited about coming to America, is America is a place that receives refugees and responds to horrors in the world by giving open arms to victims,” Kaper-Dale said. “For America to change, that is a disgrace.”

One of those immigrants watching America change is a Syrian mother named Najla, who asked that only her first name be used. She begins to tell her story, but stops for several minutes to cry.

Her 9-year-old daughter is an American citizen because she was born here unexpectedly — an early surprise — during a family trip before the war in Syria began. The citizenship enabled Najla and her husband to get approved to move to New Jersey with their daughter after they fled Syria. They are now seeking asylum so they can permanently stay, but those hopes dimmed with Trump’s executive order limiting asylum seekers.

In addition, their two sons, 18 and 20, who have applied for American visas, are stuck in the Middle East with little chance of joining the family in the U.S. during Trump’s presidency.

That has left Najla heartbroken. She worries she may never again have her family together. “I need to see them,” she said, softly sobbing. “I can’t live without them. I can’t.” 

Najla said she would uproot her American daughter and return to Syria if it meant she could see her sons together.

Stories of heartbroken mothers are common at the Global Grace Cafe. Evelyn Mukayisenga, another cook here, is a war refugee from Congo who escaped to Uganda. From there she found refuge in America with her husband and her three children. She believes one son died in the war back home. 

“I don’t know if he’s died, because I never see him when he died,” she said. “I don’t know if he’s still alive. I don’t know.”

After Trump’s order on refugees came through, Mukayisenga says that’s all they’ve been talking about, and worrying about, at the cafe.

“Now Trump is trouble,” she said. “Everybody feel bad. I feel bad.”

The cafe has become a place for refugees and political assylum seekers to share information, seek help, and collect donations. One Syrian refugee arrived just three weeks ago. He barely speaks English, and he didn’t want his name used, but he told his story through a translator.

A carpenter, he fled Syria and then spent years in Jordan as he went through the arduous vetting process to be allowed into the U.S. with his wife and two children, ages 2 and 3. But he now worries about his brother, stuck overseas, perhaps permanently given Trump’s actions.

So he has a message for Trump. He takes out his phone and he looks up a word to translate it from Arabic.

The word is terrorist.

“We are not terrorists, we are not terrorists,” he said. “Thank you.”

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