By Mark F. Gray, Special to the AFRO, [email protected]

The flavors of the world were shared by refugee chefs during the first Tables Without Borders multi restaurant event in the District of Columbia.  

Five separate establishments gave chefs who are seeking asylum a chance to prepare their specialty dishes for guests between June 17 – 22.  The event was staged in conjunction with World Refugee Week and was an opportunity for displaced culinary artists, who are working to reestablish their careers in the U.S., a place for patrons to sample cuisine from a global menu.

Refugee chefs, such as Mary from South Sudan, showcased their skills in the first multi-restaurant Tables Without Borders event in the District of Columbia June 17-22. (Courtesy Photo)

Tables Without Borders is a non-profit dinner series and an opportunity for emerging refugee and asylum-seeking chefs to reestablish their careers and rebuild their lives with dignity.  The participating restaurants donated a portion of proceeds to the Silver Spring-based Hebrew Immigration Aid Society (HIAS), which provides assistance and opportunities for refugees. 

For the event, each chef basically worked as an independent contractor for the evening.

“We love raising awareness, but at the core, it’s about helping people in their actual lives,”  co-founder Sam Sgroi, was quoted saying in The Washington Post. “There’s a really good opportunity here for career advancement, and at least, at the end of the night, these chefs receive a good paycheck.”

 HIAS’ mission is to safeguard and increase the rights of asylum seekers when they arrive to the United States. The organizers behind Tables Without Borders paired chefs from specific countries with restaurants and kitchens that have expertise with their cuisine.

The event was started by Sam Sgroi and Sara Abdel-Rahim, who met in the same study abroad program in Amman, Jordan in 2015.  Sgroi and Abdel-Rahim were motivated after witnessing the challenges faced by more than 700,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan. 

 When he returned to the United States, Sgroi helped resettle refugees in the New Orleans area.  Meanwhile Abdel-Rahim continued her work as a 2017 Fulbright Scholar in Athens, Greece and researched how to most effectively integrate refugees into the formal Greek education system. They collaborated to establish Tables Without Borders as a way to help refugees in D.C., specifically those with culinary experience, reestablish themselves and build a community motivated to support them.

“In Athens, I came to believe that, as a person living in a host community, it was my responsibility to help refugees integrate, access public services, and seek out a better life,” Abdel-Rahim told the AFRO. There is no better medium than food – which unifies people naturally around a table – to accomplish those goals.”

The participating restaurants in the District reflected the diaspora each of the chefs brought with them from their respective countries.  During five separate evenings, the menus at Maydan, A Rake’s Progress, Espita Mezcaleria and Little Sesame were given a slight makeover to showcase cuisines from Syria, El Salvador, Afghanistan and South Sudan.

Those restaurants that participated in Tables Without Borders donated a portion of each night’s proceeds to HIAS and each chef was compensated for their work. On some of the evenings early in the week, enthusiasm of the patrons led to several of the restaurants being sold out.

The irony of the week’s event was that it took place as President Donald J. Trump was threatening to arrest and deport immigrants whom he said entered the United States illegally from sanctuary cities. With D.C. being the Nation’s Capital and a sanctuary city, whose political leadership forced the administration to back off it’s deportation plans, the event served as the perfect opportunity to bring these chefs into focus without the glare of the political spotlight. 

One of the goals of the Tables Without Borders is to personalize the plight of refugees in a time of anti-immigrant sentiment that continues to build through policies being initiated by the Trump administration.