A Taste of Home

Boosted by a South Beach Wine & Food Festival dinner that showcases famous chefs preparing heritage cuisine, Syrian refugees find comfort miles away from home.

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Chef Alon Shaya is lending his culinary skills to the upcoming South Beach Wine & Food Festival’s Women of Syria Dinner in Fort Lauderdale.

What is it like to forget the taste of food from your home country? The South Florida Syrian Supper Club never wants refugees to experience that feeling. Since the civil war broke out in Syria in 2011, more than 470,000 Syrians have died, and more than 18,000 Syrian refugees have been resettled in America, according to data from the Migration Policy Institute. South Florida alone has more than 40 Syrian refugee families, some of whom haven’t tasted traditional flavors from home in years.

Through the South Florida Syrian Supper Club, Syrian refugee women cook traditional cuisine for guests in homes and other venues once a month to raise funds for Syrian refugee support services. Food is an emblem of national pride, and for many in Syria, the cuisine has been reduced to survival fare: limited vegetables, no flour to make bread and a diet that consists of grains and grim soups made from lettuce, watercress and whatever else can be scrounged up. For these women, the opportunity to prepare their favorite dishes in settings of abundance is a way to reclaim their confidence and the joy of their culinary history.

The idea for the Syria Supper Club began in New Jersey towns like Paterson and Elizabeth, which have sizable Syrian communities. The fundraising dinners, generally hosted by Jewish families, have opened lines of communication between locals and Syrian refugees. Activist Kate Cruz launched a South Florida version of the supper club after reading about the northern dinners. Cruz, who describes herself as the “kind of Waspy person whose ancestors signed the U.S. Constitution,” proposed the supper club idea to a mosque in Miami Gardens and was put in touch with the Muslim Women’s Organization of South Florida. Cruz also called her doula, Michelle Fonte, who is the executive director of Project Motherpath, a nonprofit that supports families in need.   

In March, Cruz hosted the first South Florida Syrian Supper Club dinner in her Coral Gables home. Soon after, the Miami Herald covered a  dinner held at the home of Cruz’s neighbor. Wearing traditional hijabs, Syrian refugees Kholoud Al Shareef and Yasmeen Zobi cooked a feast featuring kabsa, or baked chicken with orange spices. Before coming to the U.S., both women were forced to leave their homes in Daraa, Syria, walking through the desert for days and finding temporary shelter at the Zaatari refugee camp, a tent city in Jordan.

On February 23, the Food Network & Cooking Channel South Beach Wine & Food Festival’s Women of Syria Dinner will shine a national spotlight on the supper club, which Cruz calls “the hopes and dreams of Syrian women who’ve had to run across fields to refugee camps with children in their arms as bombs go off.” At the South Florida Syrian Supper Club, these women are finally safe enough to make money for preparing their native cuisine. “Cooking their favorite Syrian dishes, part of their heritage, gives them so much pride and dignity,” Cruz says.

The Women of Syria Dinner, held at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts and a highlight of the festival’s CRAVE Greater Fort Lauderdale Series, will bring a dollop of glitz to the South Florida Syrian Supper Club. The evening features Ingrid Hoffmann, the Colombian-American host of cooking show “Simply Delicioso,” as well as Israeli-American chef and James Beard Award winner Alon Shaya.

To Shaya, the Women of Syria Dinner is an important communication tool. “Now, maybe more than ever, it’s important to recognize the diversity that is the foundation of our country,” Shaya says. “I’m delighted and honored to celebrate the rich cultural traditions of these women, hear their stories and experience the food that is dear to their hearts and mine.”

From baba ghanouj to the spice za’atar, the Women of Syria Dinner will feature foods prepared by Zaytouna (Arabic for olive branch), the business arm of the South Florida Syrian Supper Club. Zaytouna products are sold at farmers markets from the Shops at Pembroke Gardens in Pembroke Pines to the Shops of Merrick Park in Coral Gables, and for founder Christa Tawil—who was raised in Aleppo, Syria—the business is a “chance for Syrian refugee women to have a regular income and hone their professional skills.”

Miami-based event planning group Chef David Cuisine and Event Design donated the use of its catering kitchen to Zaytouna, and the company’s co-owners, David Schwadron and Aaron Dreilinger, are helping with the upcoming Women of Syria Dinner. The way they see it, it’s just a small gesture to show refugees that South Florida has given them a sense of home.

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