When Iman Alshehab arrived at JFK Airport in 2016, she did not have anyone she knew to meet her there. A caseworker from the International Rescue Committee picked up the widowed Syrian grandmother, emigrating to the U.S. alone, and dropped her off at her new, temporary home in Dundalk.
“It was getting dark on the four-and-a-half-hour drive,” recounts Alshehab in Arabic and some English. “I kept crying. My second full day in Maryland was Thanksgiving, and I decided I will make my neighbors dinner. I used Google Translate and knocked on everyone’s door to invite them. I was brave. I was worried people would say no.”
A former chef at the Four Seasons Hotel in Damascus, she made hummus, rice, chicken, and tabbouleh pasta salad. More than 20 neighbors, including several refugee women from other countries and her caseworker, came over. Each departed, hands full, with leftovers.
Fast-forward two years. Just before this past Christmas, Alshehab—today a founding member of the Mera Kitchen Collective, a worker-owned initiative supporting refugee and immigrant women—helped cook for more than 500 people as part of an arts feast at Charles Village’s 2640 Space. “I sold out everything,” she says.
So did women from Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, El Salvador, Eritrea, Nigeria, and Sudan. The name Mera, explains Aishah AlFadhalah, a Kuwaiti immigrant and founding member, is derived from the Greek meraki, which means “to do something so passionately you leave some of yourself in it.”
Alongside Alshehab and AlFadhalah, who came to the U.S. to attend college and works at Kennedy Kreiger, the collective was begun by Liliane Makole, who ran a cafe in her native Cameroon; Brittany DeNovellis of Baltimore City Community College’s Refugee Youth Project; and Emily Lerman, who has worked with Doctors Without Borders.
Before she began cooking at the Four Seasons, Alshehab mopped the floors at the luxury Syrian hotel to support her three children. Police had already killed her husband. After bringing her stuffed grape leaves and kibbeh meatballs with spiced yogurt to work one day, she was promoted to the kitchen. (“They told me to focus on grape leaves and meatballs after that.”) Later, she lost her 6-month-old granddaughter to the war when a bomb leveled her son’s home. She fled after her house was destoyed. Her children, now adults, and seven surviving grandchildren, all of whom she hasn’t seen since immigrating, have not received word on their visa applications.
All of Mera’s chefs are experienced cooks who had to leave their home countries and start their professional and personal lives from scratch. Alshehab worked at Blind Industries and Services of Maryland, teaching sewing to the sight impaired—taking two buses each way—before being able to redirect her energies to Mera. Mona Ahmed, who lives with her husband and five children in an apartment near Alshehab, will soon complete a food handling certification course. She spent 11 years in a refugee camp after fleeing violence in Sudan.
After first hosting fundraising dinners in their homes, the women organized pop-ups at Hersh’s Pizza, Alma, and Clavel. All have children and struggle with English, and none own a car. Despite these obstacles, the Mera women opened a tent at the Baltimore Farmers’ Market last spring. They’ve ventured into catering and offered cooking classes.
“Often, their children, who learn the language quickly once they are in school, are like, ‘Oh, my mother doesn’t speak English and doesn’t know anything,’” notes AlFadhalah. “But when they see people paying to eat their mom’s food—everything turns. You see the image of their mom change before your eyes.”
Having survived so much, the Mera women did not come here to survive. Or remain isolated. They want to thrive. “Food has always been the source of bringing people around me,” says Alshehab as she places falafel and pita with tahini sauce, pickles, eggplant with red pepper, and freshly squeezed lemonade in front of two visitors to her small apartment on a recent afternoon.