Around 100 guests gathered in the dining hall of Christ the King Lutheran in Miami last July, the air filled with the smell of meat and spices as the congregation hosted a dinner for the South Florida Syrian Supper Club.
Suppers are a cross-cultural experience, bringing together American volunteers with Syrian refugees living in the area. While the Syrians cook traditional dishes for their guests, volunteers provide a space to host the meal and drive them to grocery stores that have the necessary ingredients and later to the dinner itself.
Attendees pay $50 per ticket. Proceeds cover the cost of the meal’s ingredients and pay the chefs who prepared that day’s meal. Any extra funds go toward other programs, including tutoring, that support Syrian families as they settle into their new community.
The dinners started in 2017 when founder Kate Cruz, disheartened by news of the travel ban, reached out to a mosque to find out if any Syrian refugees lived in Miami. The mosque put her in touch with the Muslim Women’s Organization of South Florida. Inspired by news articles she had read about supper clubs in areas like New York and New Jersey, Cruz recommended that they work together to apply the idea locally.
“What I wanted to do was bridge the gap of knowledge,” she said. “I felt there was a lot of ignorance about Islam and I wanted people to be more informed. I didn’t know if anyone would want to do this. I was proven wrong very quickly.”
The first dinner was held at Cruz’s home in March. Since then the group has held more than 20 dinners around the area. “It’s a very eye-opening experience,” she said. “These are real refugee families who have been through hell.”
Refugees coming to the U.S. face many challenges, such as language barriers, which include both English and Spanish in the Miami area, and adapting to new cultural rules.
“The Middle East is a different culture, where the women take care of the households and the husbands work,” said Christa Tawil, a bilingual Syrian Christian and an organizer for the suppers. “Here [in the U.S.] you can’t get by with one income. It’s a new country, a new everything.”
The idea for hosting a dinner at the church came about when member Gail Nansen read a newspaper article about the suppers. She ran the idea by the church’s then pastor, Kathryn Carroll, who saw it as an opportunity to learn about the Syrian refugee experience and to build bridges with other faiths in the community. Volunteers from the church pitched in to make the event happen.
“We’ve always been the kind of church that is open and interested in learning new things and being with other religions,” Nansen said.
Served buffet-style, the dinner that night included everything from baked chicken to tabbouleh salad. Translators sat at each table to help facilitate conversation. After the meal finished, discussion began. The Syrians shared their experiences of coming to the U.S. and acclimating to a new culture, answering questions from those in attendance.
Referencing Scriptures like John 3:16 and Psalm 23, Nansen asked if there was anything the women relied on during their journey out of Syria. In reply, one of the speakers shared the Arabic word sabrj, a concept of patience taught in the Quran. “That was very meaningful to me,” Nansen said.
Tawil’s favorite part of the suppers has been watching the interactions between the Americans and the Syrians, and seeing how the refugees are starting to adapt and immerse themselves in the culture.
As for the future, Tawil said they’re working on creating a full-time business owned and run by the Syrian women that would cater special events and sell goods at farmers markets. The group has already held an outdoor food festival, Flavors of Syria, which was completely sold out.