When Mawda Altayan, her husband, Mohi Aldeen Alhomowi, and their infant son emigrated from Damascus, Syria, to St. Louis in 2017, they had to completely start over. Altayan, just 20 at the time, didn’t speak English, had no driver’s license or immediate job prospects and the couple didn’t own a car.
“In the beginning it was very, very hard, because no friends, no language, no car, no work, nothing,” Altayan remembers.
Almost three years later, she speaks English fluently and has founded her own catering company, Damascus Food, which she now runs with Alhomowi, serving dishes like chicken shawarma, tabbouleh, baklava, hummus, baba ghanoush and stuffed grape leaves made with family recipes. She has earned SafeServ certification in food handling and management, cooked meals for groups as big as 200 and vended at the annual Festival of Nations in Tower Grove Park. Catering allows Altayan ample time at home with her three children while also providing a steady income, all the while making new and deeper connections with her community. She has even begun cooking for the homeless in St. Louis, delivering hot food to people outside Biddle House homeless shelter when it’s at capacity.
“Now it’s better,” Altayan says. “Sometimes it’s still a little difficult, because my English isn’t perfect, but it’s much better than in the beginning. We want to still work hard to learn English well and make good things in America.”
Altayan credits some of her success in America so far to Welcome Neighbor STL, a community group supporting immigrants and refugees that launched in 2016. Founder Jessica Bueler formed Welcome Neighborhood STL after reading an article in the Riverfront Times about a group of four teenage Syrian refugees who were attacked in north St. Louis.
“As I was reading this article, I was like, ‘Where’s this happening?’ and it turned out it was just a mile away from where I was every single day,” Bueler recalls. “And so I kind of had this moment where I pictured everybody else in St. Louis reading this article and going, ‘Oh my god, that’s terrible,’ but then turning the page to the next thing. So I thought to myself, ‘Well, what are you going to do about it, Jessica?’”
Bueler called her friend, Aboud Alhamid, the chef-owner of Ranoush, a Syrian restaurant in the Delmar Loop, to ask for his advice.
“He told me that if I was interested in getting involved, to let him connect me with a Syrian pediatrician in the St. Louis area who could help tell me about the issues that [Syrian refugees are] experiencing, the trials and tribulations, and what I might be able to do to help,” Bueler says. “So I reached out to him, and he told me the very first thing they needed were some toiletry items, because when [refugees] come to the U.S., they only have assistance for three months through the International Institute.”
Determined to help however she could, Bueler organized a toiletry drive, starting with just one post in the University City page of NextDoor, a neighborhood social networking service.
“And we were just overwhelmed by the number of people who came out to donate items,” Bueler says. “There were bags and bags and boxes of things; we were tripping over them. We were trying to provide enough things for 30 families and ended up collecting two truckloads full of stuff.”
This led Bueler to organize a network of American volunteers to partner with refugee families as local support systems and advocates, which evolved into Welcome Neighbor STL.
“One common theme we noticed every single time is that every time we were invited over, they would always make these amazing spreads of food, and we were just blown away by how amazing the food was,” Bueler says. “Somebody came up with the idea of having a supper club event at somebody’s house, and we could do $40 a plate, neighbors could come over and try the food – you hear falafel or hummus, and we knew a little bit about it, but not about some of these other traditional dishes.”
Today, more than 1,500 volunteers and refugees are involved in Welcome Neighbor STL, and to date, the group has hosted 49 supper club events around town, raising more than $76,000 total for refugee families in the past year and a half.
Altayan first met Bueler through Welcome Neighbor STL and says the group has made life in the U.S. easier for her and her family.
“When we came here, we didn’t think about cooking [professionally], but our friends would try our food and they supported us, and Jessica [Bueler] did also; when she tried our food, she loved our food,” Altayan says. “It makes me feel happy, because when I make my food, I make it with all my love. And when people try the food, they love the food and they welcome me and my family in St. Louis.”
And Altayan is just one of 15 refugees – most of them women – who participate in Welcome Neighbor STL’s catering network and supper club events. Guests can request traditional Syrian meals prepared by Alifa Alahma, Badur Mohmaed, Du’ua Alzatari, Faiqa Alqula, Ghaidaa and Ayman Almalla, Hadeel Sumsmieh, Iman Alkrad, Israa and Ali Alrashed, Khawla Alzlouf, Lina Almuallem, Maysaa Telmesani, Muna Alfalah, Najlaa Alsaadi and Zahiya Deek. Those interested in booking private catering with Welcome Neighbor STL can do so on the group’s website and can request a specific chef if desired.
The group’s next public event will be held this Sat., Feb. 23, at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Ballwin from 6 to 8pm; tickets are just $30 per person, with a menu featuring hummus and baba ganoush with pita bread; yalanji grape leaves stuffed with rice, Mediterranean spices and lemon juice; kubba, deep-fried bulgur with beef, pine nuts and onion; manakeesh, grilled dough with a variety of toppings, including cheese, hot red pepper, thyme, ground beef, olive oil and Mediterranean spices; and baklava for dessert.
Not all menus feature the same meal: On March 14, from 6:30 to 8:30pm, the supper club will trade out kubba and manakeesh for tabbouleh salad and chicken shawarma at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Ellisville. The event has a suggested donation of $25 per guest.
“These are family recipes that their mothers taught them how to cook, that their grandmothers taught them to cook, or that their family members send them from Syria,” Bueler says. “They see all of the events that we’re doing and how hundreds of people are coming out and filling these rooms for these sold-out events, and say, ‘Oh, well you have to make your aunt so-and-so’s recipe. Share this with everybody next time.’”
In addition to catering and supper clubs, Welcome Neighbor STL is also gearing up to offer more cooking classes in 2019. So far cooking classes have been mostly held at private homes, schools or for private events, but Bueler says the group is hoping to partner with a local commercial kitchen to host larger class sizes.
“We have a lot of really exciting stuff in the works, and it just seems like people are finally starting to hear about it and it’s really getting out there, which is really exciting,” Bueler says. “People always come together when there’s good food, right?”
To learn more about future supper club events or cooking classes or to book catering, visit welcomeneighborstl.com.
Welcome Neighbor STL, 314.585.6331, welcomeneighborstl.com