Chef Majed cracks eggs into a mixer and blends mayonnaise when we meet in Washington. He tosses fresh greens in a food processor, and he seasons the mix. It’s part of a thick, yellow sauce he’ll use to coat chunks of chicken skewered for kabobs, just like his mom used to make.
“The kitchen plays a big role for every family in Syria,” he tells me. “My mother is an excellent cook. I used to help her and learn from her. … I haven’t seen her in five years. I wish I can see her and taste her cooking, because I consider her the greatest.”
Majed, who asked VOA not to use his last name, began his journey to America when his parents urged him to leave Syria amid constant war.
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First stop, Jordan
He found refuge in Jordan where he stayed for three years. But social media reminded him of why he fled.
“My hometown was subject to shelling and strikes. We weren’t able to see or go back to our house. I … started to see my city and my home in pictures on Facebook and on the internet. I saw pictures of my home in ruins. … It hurts me to think about it now.”
Meanwhile, he struggled to find a job.
“The Jordanian police prohibited me from working, and there was no help from the government. I was living in a house, and I had to pay rent.”
When he ultimately found work, he found new challenges.
“I had to keep it a secret. In a secret place. In any moment I could have been taken away by the police, deported back to Syria or taken to a camp.”
Love and marriage
But as in many great stories, love happened, and Majed got married.
“I wasn’t able to prove my marriage for eight months in the Jordanian court,” he says with a smile. “It was problematic yet comical at the same time. My wife was pregnant and about to give birth at any moment, and we weren’t married by law. And in our countries this is a very big problem.”
But then his phone rang, and his life was again about to change. He and his fledgling family, he now had two daughters, were going to the U.S. as refugees.
“I was so happy,” he says.
Chef Majed now cooks for an online restaurant called Foodhini that works with immigrant and refugee chefs who prepare traditional dishes from the lands they fled.
Owner Noobstaa Philip Vang is a refugee from Laos who came to the U.S. with his parents after the Vietnam War.
“I … was just really missing some of my mom’s home cooking and wished I could just go to auntie or grandma in the neighborhood and just buy some of their food,” he says.
And so, Foodhini was born. It’s one of 70 food businesses growing at Union Kitchen in what’s called a “food incubator,” where fledgling businesses without the means for a brick-and-mortar operation rent space in a professional kitchen.
And while the kitchen, the country and the language are new, Majed’s cooking transports him back to the old life that he knew.
“Any dish I make reminds me of Syria. Reminds me of my country, my family, my mother. Every dish is a reminder.”
Seemingly worlds away from the ravages of war back home, Majed now optimistically looks toward the future.
“Like any father I have a dream for my girls that they have a bright future. I have worked to give them a generous life so that they wouldn’t be in need of anything … whether it be schools, university, or anything. When they told me I would be coming to America, I dreamed like anybody else that I would live with my wife and kids a bountiful life. And God willing, life will be good and I will be able to provide.”