Restaurant owners Vimala Rajendran and Jamil Kadoura, both immigrants to the United States, are opening their hearts and restaurants to local refugees this holiday season.
Rajendran would like the Sunday after Thanksgiving to be known as “Global Neighborhood Day,” with communities joining together to break bread and celebrate the many cultures from around the world that make America a special place.
To get it started, she offered a free buffet Sunday at her Chapel Hill restaurant – Vimala’s Curryblossom Cafe – with a special invite to the refugee community that includes many families from war-torn parts of the world. By 5:30 p.m., 20 families had arrived to take in the traditional turkey dinner as well as several international dishes.
On Tuesday, Nov. 29, Kadoura will hold a fundraiser at his Mediterranean Deli restaurant in Chapel Hill to help seven families from Syria. Tickets to the buffet, silent auction and open bar cost $75 per person ($125 per couple).
Kadoura, a native Palestinian from Jersusalem, hopes to raise at least $15,000, with money going to a church that is working with the families in Orange and Durham counties.
Rajendran said she was inspired by the goodwill that Americans showed her when she emigrated 36 years ago from Bombay, India, to Ann Arbor, Mich. She’s made Chapel Hill her home since 1985, but came up with the idea only three months ago, during walks with a good friend and neighbor, Amy Odom.
“I feel like this is a great way to close out the Thanksgiving weekend,” she said.
For Satam Alhmidi, 36, and his family, it was their first opportunity to sample the Thanksgiving fare. They are Syrian refugees who fled the country two years into a brutal civil war that has yet to end. They spent three years in a Jordanian refugee camp before coming to the United States two months ago.
Alhmidi gave a smile and a thumbs up as he finished his plate. Through a translator, Alhmidi said his family has been treated well since coming to Durham. He and his wife, Zakiah, have four young children ages 9, 5, 3 and 1. They sorted through coats, blankets and other donated goods that were also made available at the dinner.
“The American people, they love to see our children happy,” Almidi said.
Rajendran reached out to Church World Services to invite refugees to the dinner. The nonprofit helps them find jobs, educational opportunities, medical assistance and social service benefits.
‘Shocking to me’
As he sat in Mediterranean Deli last weekend interpreting for two Syrian refugees speaking in Arabic, Kadoura said when he first heard the men’s stories he had difficulty believing them.
The men described the killing of family members – in one man’s case the beheading of his father by Syrian soldiers. (The next day the men asked that their names and the full interviews not be published because they were afraid for family members back home.)
Kadoura lived under Israeli occupation and also spent several weeks in a Red Cross refugee camp after the Six Day War displaced his family.
“But they didn’t treat us like the Syrians treat their people,” he said. “For me to hear that, it’s shocking to me. I had to verify with their friends, “This actually happened?’”
World Vision, a Christian humanitarian agency, estimates 386,000 Syrians have been killed since the start of the country’s civil war in 2011.
The United Nations says there are 13.5 million Syrian refugees: 6.1 million displaced within the country and 4.8 million in neighboring countries.
The Syrians Kadoura is helping are Muslim. They said they spent a year being questioned by United Nations officials and United States and Jordanian governments before they, their wives and children were allowed to come to the United States,
They were asked about their jobs, military service, whether they had ever carried guns, whether they had visited other countries, and even whether they’d ever had two wives – which they said would have ruled them out.
Once approved, refugees are assigned to a resettlement agency, said Jen Skees, employment services coordinator at Church World Service. There are four in the Triangle. CWS’s Durham office has worked with 73 Syrian refugees since January 2015, she said.
The agencies meet the reugees at the airport. The U.S. Department of State Population Refugees and Migration provides $925 per person for the initial resettlement period (rising to $975 in fiscal 2017), from which the resettlement agency pays the refugees’ rent.
The newcomers get a short orientation to their new country, get signed up for food assistance, Social Security and Medicaid. The chikdren are enrolled in school and the parents get help finding jobs.
Language is the biggest obstacle, but Syrians face other cultural obstacles, Skees said.
“It does vary,” she said. “There’ll often be resistance to the wife working. But after they see what the rent is and how they’ll pay the bills, and just hat the culture is like, the women are often eager to work.”
And then there is the fear of radical Islam.
Future White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus has refused to rule out President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign proposal to create a database or registry of Muslim immigrants.
The Syrians interviewed at Mediterranean Deli know who Trump is. But they also said they are not a threat and that they oppose the fundamentalist Islamic State fighting President Bashar al-Assad’s government soldiers in Syria. One said they deserve to go to hell.
The men say they only came to the United States for the safety and future of their families and children, they said.
Rajendran said the presidential election was also heavy on her mind when she came up with the buffet. Some of President-elect Donald Trump’s speeches on the campaign trail regarding immigration and terrorism took broad swipes at ethnic and religious groups.
“I think the climate in this country just naturally led us to this day,” she said.
Rep. David Price, a Chapel Hill Democrat, and his wife, Lisa, attended the Vimala’s dinner to welcome the refugees. He said the dinner shows there are plenty of Americans who have not forgotten the country’s melting pot heritage.
“It underscores the kind of community we want to be,” he told the crowd.
Schultz: 919-829-8950, @chapelhillnews1