When Liliane Makole came to America from Cameroon, she made a dream board on the bedroom wall of her Little Italy home. One of her aspirations was to open her own restaurant.
Today, her dream is more attainable than ever. Makole and five other women founded Mera Kitchen Collective, a worker-owned co-op focused on empowering refugees and immigrants and tapping into their culinary heritage by hosting pop-up events throughout the city.
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“When there’s so much movement in people’s lives, cooking is an anchor,” says member and translator Aishah Alfadhalah. “This is something familiar when everything else feels new.”
Inspired by women’s empowerment groups she had seen in the Democratic Republic of Congo, co-founder Emily Lerman connected with Makole, Meg Murray, and Brittany DeNovellis, who all had similar ideas of giving women the platform to cook.
“With the current political climate, there’s a heightened interest in the immigrant experience,” Murray says.
Mera co-founder Iman Alshehab, a Syrian refugee who has been in America for seven months was the executive chef of the Four Seasons back in Damascus.
“When I first got here, I wanted to go back home,” says Alshehab through translation. “But starting this project has brought love back into my life.”
That love was on full display in June, when she cooked for a sold-out event at Hersh’s in South Baltimore. Instead of pizza and pasta coming out of the kitchen, it was Alshehab’s grape leaves and kibbeh dishes. In September, Makole hosted her own chicken cooking class at R. House. Next month, Mera is hosting a pop-up at Clavel. The eventual goal is for the co-op to open its own brick-and-mortar cafe.
“The idea is to amplify the voices, skills, and stories of these women—and, so far, everyone has said yes,” says Lerman. “You always hear that Baltimore is this great, supportive place. But it’s nice to actually experience it and realize it’s true.”