Refugee Chefs to Cook Free Meals For Healthcare Workers and Local Community

A total of 1,400 free meals are going out this week.

Chef Iman Alshehab cooks at a recent Mera event. | Photo by Giovanni Vargas
Chef Iman Alshehab cooks at a recent Mera event. | Photo by Giovanni Vargas

If anything, the coronavirus pandemic is revealing people’s true colors. There are those who hoard toilet paper and hand sanitizer. And then there are others who cook more than a thousand free meals for the local community.

Generosity has always been a pillar for Mera Kitchen Collective -- a Baltimore-based, worker-owned cooperative supporting international chefs. Recently, the collective has had momentum in its mission to empower refugees to tap into their culinary heritage by cooking at pop-up events. Just as important as giving back is in these uncertain times, the organization’s founders also want to keep their chefs working as event after event gets cancelled. 

“With so many things postponed, that is a sizable chunk of money that’s disappearing before our eyes,” co-founder Emily Lerman says. “Also there is an acute need for people around the city who are already food-insecure, with the pandemic only making things worse.”

So Mera organizers put out a call on social media to find people in need of meals throughout the next week and said the response was enormous -- everyone from healthcare workers to out-of-work parents responded. Now, they are cooking and delivering 1,400 free meals.

“We don’t want to cut into other restaurants who are relying on delivery to keep their businesses afloat right now,” co-founder Aishah Alfadhalah says. “So we are really targeting people who can’t afford those services.”

Using their commercial kitchen, Chef Iman Alshehab (the former executive chef of the Four Seasons in Damascus) will be cooking with a very small team under a strict hygiene protocol to prepare dinners Wednesday through Sunday. There is a vegan and gluten-free option of rice with tomatoes, eggplant, and onions, as well as a chicken shawarma option. All of the meals will be individually packaged and delivered to one point person for distribution. 

“This is the time to look out for your neighbors,” Alfadhalah says. “What we are realizing in this crisis is that we need to be more generous. We want to give people the dignified opportunity to work while also serving our community.”

Though Mera was overwhelmed with people asking to volunteer, its organizers say that the entire idea of this movement is to properly compensate their chefs -- and also keep a crowd out of the kitchen. There is a GoFundMe page set up for the initiative, but both Lerman and Alshehab implore people to support local restaurants.

“There are going to be restaurants that close and don’t open again,” Lerman says. “It’s a lot of work to operate an in-house dining restaurant and, all of a sudden, make a takeout menu possible. We just want people to support small businesses across the board.”

Though the future for Mera -- like so many service-oriented organizations across the world -- is uncertain, the number-one priority is that people like Chef Iman continue to cook and work for as long as possible. Having fled from Syria, that resilience is practically a part of her DNA.

“Refugees who have been so close to death understand why it’s important to preserve each other and reduce suffering where you can,” Alfadhalah says. “Chef Iman shared an Arabic saying with us recently, which loosely translates to ‘no ship sinks by giving.’”

Sign up here for our daily DC email and be the first to get all the food/drink/fun in town.

Jess Mayhugh is a Cities Editor at Thrillist, who has had the privilege of eating Chef Iman's food. Follow her for more delicious stuff on Twitter and Instagram.