My Dinner with Syrian Refugees in New Jersey [Jennifer Bogut]

Last Sunday I went to a “Syria Supper Club.” 

I saw the article in the New York Times about a week before and wanted to attend as a paying guest. The idea is that dinner guests pay $50 to attend a traditional meal cooked by a family of Syrian refugees—hosted by an American household. Guests eat and chat with the family for a few hours and the money collected goes to the Syrian family.

When I contacted the organization I was told that all the guest slots were booked but they needed drivers to pick up the cooks and the food, deliver them to the host home, and drive them back at the end of the evening. I volunteered to do this—not because I wouldn’t have to pay but because I’ve been a domestic civil rights activist my entire life and the paradigm shift we are now caught up in has made me realize I need to expand my efforts. I was available the following Sunday and committed to the event.

I picked up the family of three—one man and two women—and their food trays in Elizabeth, New Jersey. The two women spoke no English and the man spoke very little. I had purchased a Penzy’s Spices gift card for the cook but had to point to the web address so they could follow the link to figure out what it was for. It made for an awkward ride to Montclair where the host lives. 

We were all tense as it seemed they had no idea what to expect either and, with the language barrier, I was frustrated I was unable to ease their concerns. I was silent the entire drive and kept under the speed limit out of fear for their safety if I was pulled over. They had a continuous dialog which I didn’t need to understand to imagine it was one of concern and trepidation.

When we arrived at the host’s home we found a camera crew making a documentary for German television, to show that not all Americans are xenophobes. I could not help chiming in with: “It is only 25% of those who consider themselves Republicans!” Although the family had been informed, they seemed to be caught unaware. The documentarians were all male and were not permitted to attach the microphones to the women, nor could we explain to them what was needed. The tension and fear of the Syrian family was palpable. 

After a while, the rest of the guests began arriving and two lovely Arabic-speaking young women were among them. Things began to lighten up and flow, the family’s faces changed, and they seemed lighter and “back in their own skin.” 

It was then I realized my own prejudice; this would not be a homogenized group. I’d had expectations, which I now realize were influenced by social conventions. I expected a group of rich, white people who had little to no exposure immigrants and certainly not to refugees. However, the guests were all colors and several were immigrants themselves. Many brought their kids. Two of the children were young, five and ten, but more were early teenagers. I could tell they had no idea what the big deal was—a beautiful thing.

There were group introductions and a quick background on the family and then we ate. There was an adorable moment when a guest who is a Swedish immigrant and of mixed race introduced herself; the man asked three times where she was from as he could not get that there are brown people in Sweden as well. The Swedish immigrant studies English five days a week for three hours a day and was able to get through his own introduction with no help from the translator. I could see how proud that made him.

I am not at all open-minded when it comes to food. I like what I like and rarely try anything new, but I tried almost everything and it was DELISH!! There were a few items I have had before like hummus and tabouli, which I eschewed since I was dedicated to branching out. It is no small thing for me and I was quite proud of this, I also found that I like Syrian food—a lot!

By the end of the evening the joy and gratitude of this family quite literally got me high. Although we could not converse together on the ride back to their home, the non-stop conversation they had was happy and chatty rather than the dire mood I felt earlier. When I dropped them off the women hugged me and I shook the man’s hand and they invited me into their home for coffee. But, I needed to get back to my own house so I declined. They thanked me profusely and the man said; “we are very happy that you drove us.”

I will do this again and I encourage others to find or host their own Syria Supper Club.

~ Jennifer Bogut (Montclair, NJ)

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This piece, written by Jennifer Bogut, is adapted and edited from a Facebook post written on 28 February 2017.

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One thought on “My Dinner with Syrian Refugees in New Jersey [Jennifer Bogut]”

  1. What an enlightening story. What a sad situation we’ve gotten ourselves in to, but it’s always good to share the good in the middle of all this.

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