How This Chef Is Helping Refugees One Dinner at a Time
Nasser Jab is on a mission to educate and empower with food.
Global Citizens of America is a new series that highlights Americans who dedicate their lives to helping people outside the borders of the US. At a time when some world leaders are encouraging people to look inward, Global Citizen knows that only if we look outward, beyond ourselves, can we make the world a better place.
Nasser Jab is a man on the move. Since coming to the United States from Palestine more than 16 years ago, boundless enthusiasm has fueled all of his ventures.
From student, to filmmaker, to chef, to restaurateur, Jab has put his energy to good use building a life and career for himself. But now, his latest mission as a tech entrepreneur turned-social activist is requiring the most work he’s ever committed.
“We’re starting a food revolution,” he told Global Citizen. “It’s a revolutionary act.”
Since March Jab has been organizing and co-hosting the Displaced Kitchens dinner series in partnership with local New York City restaurants and his food experience startup Komeeda. The series provides the chance for recently resettled refugees to tell their stories to ticketed diners over courses of food representing elements of their culture.
The aim of the dinners, Jab told Global Citizen, is to build understanding between refugees and communities who often find it difficult to humanize the folks behind the headlines, coming to the US as a result of political, economic, and social conditions few Americans fully comprehend.
“People don’t understand how hard the trip is,” Jab said. “Things have happened that made the water, and the sea, and a boat without food, and without even a vest safer than the ground.”
With the majority of proceeds from the dinners going directly to the refugees, Displaced Kitchens also offers material support for individuals struggling to adapt in a new country where legal and cultural barriers can impede their ability to find steady work and housing. The dinners have helped 11 refugees since it launched in 2016.
Global Citizen spoke to Jab about his ambitious plans to use cuisine as a tool for empowerment, expression, and understanding in the refugee community and beyond.
“It comes down to food,” he said. “Through food, you can explain all of that.”
Storytelling Through Meals
Jab came to New York from the city of Ramallah in the Palestinian West Bank as a student in late 2001. He arrived two weeks before the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and cites the subsequent suspicions of Middle-Eastern Americans as a lesson in how misconceptions can take hold in the US. Coming from a divided, and deeply misunderstood region of the Middle East, Jab knew it was possible to overcome these barriers.
“I was brought up in Palestine,” he explained, noting the common assumption that all Palestinians and Israelis are in fierce opposition to one another. “I should be racist, but guess what: I have a lot of Israeli friends. I disagree on a lot of points with them, but there is commonality. I can see their humanity.”
Jab also talked about his early memories with food as a political force.
“The olive tree to my family, or to any Palestinian family, is more precious than me, because it’s older than me,” he said. “It’s fed [my father], it’s fed his grandfather. This is how they view it when settlers come and they offer trees.”
Extending an olive branch to visiting peoples is an apt metaphor for the ideas Jab began to mull over — he wanted to connect people from different cultures, especially those whose stories were misunderstood, and he knew he could do it through food. Eventually, he got his chance after he opened up his own restaurant on the Lower East Side.
At Mazeish in New York City (Jab’s restaurant, which recently closed), he began hosting a ticketed dinner series where he would cook Palestinian dishes with Latino influences for a small group of people. The idea was to try to tell stories about his culture, through food.
“A lot of the Palestinian population outside of the Arab world is displaced in South America,” he explained. “I was basically explaining the story of Palestinian displacement in South America through every course.”
To make it all happen, Jab joined forces with his now business partner Jabber al-Bihani, the founder of Komeeda. By partnering with al-Bihani and his company, Jab figured they would have a better shot at attracting a bigger audience.
He was right. “From Ramallah to Bogotá,” was an immediate hit. Before he knew it his events were selling out several times per week.
Jab knew he was onto something big.
Around the same time that his dinner series was taking off, Jab got an interesting call from one of his friends working with the United Nations. This friend wanted to know if Jab might be able to help out a newly arrived refugee from Syria, who was struggling to find work and housing.
“He called me to sleep in the restaurant. He was about to be homeless, but I couldn’t hire him. One, he doesn’t speak the language, and two, he doesn't have any kitchen skills,” Jab said.
Lutfi, which is not his full name, left his home city of Damascus fleeing persecution for being gay. Initially he went to Bahrain, and eventually back to Syria, only to escape the outbreak of civil war by fleeing to Egypt. There he applied for refugee status in the US, arriving in early 2016.
Because he spoke little English, it was hard for Lutfi to apply for any work, despite his background as a graphic designer. On top of that, homophobia among Syrian communities in the US meant that Lutfi still faced discrimination, even from people who could employ him in his native tongue.
Jab thought about the situation, and came up with a plan to assist Lutfi. He would simply adapt his current dinner series to tell another story.
“I already tell the Palestinian story. Just tell the Syrian story,” Jab told Lutfi.
Since the dinners would be hosted at Jab’s restaurant, he had the power to give all of the profits from ticket sales to Lutfi. He and al-Bihani were excited at the prospect of using their platform for a greater cause.
“We already had the two of us working on the Palestinian-Latino dinners. So we thought, why can’t we use them for social good? That’s what we did.”
Like his original dinners, Displaced Kitchens was an immediate hit. The first dinner led to another, and then another. The event soon picked up coverage from Eater, the New York Times, and Saveur. Before they knew it, they were selling out almost every event.
“People started booking all the time. It was everywhere. Everybody came in. It became a thing.”
With more press came more names of refugees living in the US. Jab says he was flooded with Facebook messages from people telling stories of hardship and struggle after leaving their home countries. There were people all over New York and beyond with very similar tales. Getting to the US is one thing, but getting by is a whole other ordeal.
“They're already coming in debt, they don’t know how to operate in the system, they don’t know anything,” Jab said. “So they end up in poverty and that poverty leads to displacement internally because you can't pay the rent.”
As the series expanded to include more and more refugees from different backgrounds, Jab could see that most Americans had no idea how tough life was for these new settlers. Many diners were clearly overwhelmed by the reality of showing up in a new country without much help.
“People don’t think about these things,” he stressed. “They take it for granted.”
Displaced Kitchens became a way for refugees to educate the public while at the same time empowering the guest chefs. Jab told Global Citizen one of the most important things Displaced Kitchens did was allow the refugees access to folks that were willing to help them out.
“Every single refugee we got, I told them what are your problems? They tell me I need a job, I need housing, I need this,” he said. “So every dinner we ask.”
Lutfi ended up getting housing and a full time job in advertising from connections he made at his dinners. Another refugee chef from Zimbabwe, Tatenda, was able to secure a three month lease and move off of the street after guests at one of her dinners started a GoFundMe page in her name.
“What we realized is that we need to give them access to these things; employment, housing, and acceptance. These dinners allow us to do that,” Jab said. “Where would a refugee meet the chief editor of a famous magazine or a landlord, or whatever the case may be outside of something like this?”
A Scalable Model
Since the inaugural dinner in March, the duo has hosted over 60 dinners across New York and Washington, D.C.
Jab says that growing meant developing a socially-conscious business model that could work on a larger scale. Jab and al-Bihani reached out to more restaurants who were willing to partner with them, and created a system where the cost of tickets would cover the expenses of renting the restaurant’s’ space, while still providing the majority of proceeds directly to the refugee chefs
“I’m not ashamed to use the term model,” Jab explained. “I guess social activists don’t like that word, but I franchised this model. This is the system that we have been doing, and it's been so far successful.”
Jab pointed out that while Americans might not always understand the refugee crisis, tons of people are willing to help out in whatever ways they can. By providing a consumable good that benefits refugees, Displaced Kitchens comes an easily accessible way to create education and social impact in a market that already exists.
“If I bring ten Americans In a room, and believe me they want to help, they probably wouldn’t know how,” Jab admitted. “But if I tell them ‘buy this thing, it's going to help out this refugee,’ they will all buy it!”
While the series is obviously beneficial for the refugees involved, Jab is just as proud of the education the meals provide to the customers who attend. He told Global Citizen that as Displaced Kitchens grew, he could see more and more diverse guests starting to attend.
“I had 10 lawyers, predominantly Jewish, come help out a Syrian refugee at a Palestinian restaurant,” Jab recalls. “We also had a Black Lives Matter activist and a Trump supporter. He walked out saying that hatred in my heart is out because I was able to see a story.”
Each dinner brought with it an opportunity to build community by breaking down barriers through shared experiences.
“Through food we transcended politics, we transcended racism.”
Ultimately, Jab and al-Bahani want to grow their dinner series to extend far beyond the East Coast. They have plans to host a panel at South X Southwest next year, and with the scalability of their model, Jab believes it might not be long until Displaced Kitchen series are occurring in cities all over the country.
Jab also said that other long term goals included moving past the dinner series alone to create other social impact movements through food. Earlier this year, he helped organize the Refugee Food Festival in New York, a three day event bringing together refugees, aid organizations, and governmental bodies over food and stories. More events like these could be on the horizon.
Komeeda is also in the process of distributing a refugee cookbook: “It's kind of like Humans of New York. You put both your recipe, and your story,” Jab explained. Proceeds from that project are also distributed to the contributing refugee chefs.
Komeeda recently began another dinner series similar to Displaced Kitchens, but featuring the cuisine and stories of American veterans.
At the end of the day, Jab is a man who sees no limit to the power of what can be accomplished using food as a way to change people’s perspectives, and provide opportunities to those who need it most.
“You can always do impact. It doesn’t have to be heard, it doesn’t have to be told. But it’s happening. It’s part of our model. We want to continuously be empowering community and people through food experiences.