In recent months, Baltimore restaurants have welcomed refugees into their kitchens. In a pair of pop-up events, chefs from Hersh’s and Clavel have each cooked alongside Iman Alshehab to prepare Syrian feasts.
The events offered guests a taste of the expertise of Alshehab, who was a chef at the Four Seasons in Damascus and arrived in Baltimore in late 2016. They also offered support to the refugee and immigrant community in Baltimore.
It’s the work of Mera Kitchen Collective, a local cooperative that was founded by a group of women, including refugees and immigrants. Mera is structured to provide opportunity to refugees who recently arrived from countries experiencing war and poverty.
By forming as a worker-owned cooperative, the group sought to ensure that each member has ownership and opportunity, Mera’s Aishah AlFadhalah said in a recent chat at Red Emma’s.
Along with AlFadhalah Alshehab, the cofounders include Emily Lerman, Brittany DeNovellis, Liliane Makole and Megan Murray.
In addition to supporting the chefs, some proceeds from the dinners go to refugee resettlement groups in the area such as the International Rescue Committee, which now helps 700-800 families in Maryland a year.
Baltimore’s immigrant population grew in recent years, especially as former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake made a push to welcome more foreign families. A 2011 count said the population doubled over 10 years, and a recent report from NPR said immigrants make up about 8 percent of the population.
Providing a platform to show off culinary creativity and an opportunity to make money is another step in creating a welcoming environment. The fact that the collective’s work is centered on food provides another form of support.
“When you try something that’s different from your own culture, it’s a stepping stone to changing your thoughts and becoming more tolerant,” said AlFadhalah, who also serves as a translator at the events.
Interest has followed, as the pop-ups described above each sold out. And Mera has also been behind catering jobs and events like an Eritrean coffee ceremony with Thread at Open Works.
Mera Kitchen Collective has been making strides toward larger forums that will help chefs get exposure. On April 28, the cooperative is hosting a market-style event at Space 2640 offering a chance to purchase food from women immigrant vendors. The Refugee and Immigrant Arts Feast will also have art and craft vendors, as well as performances. RSVP here.
A six-month stint in Johns Hopkins Social Innovation Lab helped work toward this growth, AlFadhalah said. On Tuesday night, the latest cohort of the social enterprise-focused accelerator closes with the Impact and Innovation Forum.
In the future, AlFadhalah said the Collective’s goal is to open a brick-and-mortar space that can serve as a cafe as well as well as provide programming and support for the community.-30-
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