The streets of Washington are dark and empty when Majed Abdalraheem first arrives at Union Kitchen, a shared commercial cooking space in a warehouse on the city’s northeast side. By 4 a.m., he has already made headway on preparing a meal for 150 people.
Just before dawn, the 29-year old pauses to gulp down water and say a brief prayer under his breath before getting back to mixing a large bowl of chopped chicken with spices for a popular Syrian staple dish called shawarma.
During Ramadan, the holy month that began on May 16 and ends on June 14 when devout Muslims abstain from all food and drink between dawn and sunset, Abdalraheem works a customized nocturnal schedule. The Syrian refugee, who cooks for a meal delivery service called Foodhini, starts his working day around 2 a.m. That way he doesn’t have to spend his days over a hot stove without being able to drink water.
“The grill makes you thirsty,” Abdalraheem said. “That kind of work while you’re fasting is very difficult.”
Abdalraheem has faced far greater challenges: A native of the Syrian city of Deraa - the birthplace of the Syrian revolution - he was working as a chef in Damascus when he decided to flee his war-torn homeland in 2013. He ended up as a refugee in neighboring Jordan, where he married his wife, Walaa Jadallah, a distant relative from Syria and a fellow refugee.
“Three years in Jordan felt like 30,” Jadallah, 29, said.
Life in refugee camps
Conditions in the Zaatari refugee camp were atrocious. Life in Jordan was expensive, and as a refugee, Abdalraheem wasn’t allowed to work legally. He took under-the-table odd jobs as a chef, cashier and newspaper deliveryman.
At one point, he was rounded up by police while on a newspaper run and spent 10 days in jail for working illegally. Jadallah was pregnant with their first child and thought the whole family would be deported back to a disintegrating Syria.
“I was tearing my hair out. It was the worst day of my life,” she said.
In June 2016, months before the American presidential election, the family was approved to come to Tucson, Arizona. As the campaign reached full swing, so did the rhetoric surrounding immigrants and refugees, propelled by presidential candidate Donald Trump.
“I don’t know ... Trump maybe no like refugee,” Abdalraheem says he remembers thinking at the time. “I thought people would be hostile and wouldn’t accept us. In Jordan, we would hear that (Americans) don’t like refugees, especially Syrians.”
But those misgivings were quickly dismissed the first time Abdalraheem wandered out to learn the Tucson bus system and buy some household supplies.
“I was amazed that the first people I met on the street smiled at me without even knowing me,” he recalled. “Then the people after that smiled and said ‘Hi.’ It was strange to me.”
After eight months, Abdalraheem, Jadallah and their two daughters moved to a small apartment in Riverdale, Maryland, just outside of Washington.
A new life
Shortly afterward, Abdalraheem found work with Foodhini.
Company founder and CEO Noobtsaa Philip Vang, the son of Hmong refugees from Laos, felt connected to stories of migration and asylum.
After arriving in Washington for graduate school, Vang found himself missing his mother’s home-cooked Laotian meals. So he decided to find someone in the local community who could cook just as well. From there, the idea expanded to include immigrant and refugee chefs from other countries to develop their own personalized menus that Washington residents can order for meals or catering services.
“People are aware of the situations that are abroad, but maybe they haven’t really been able to even connect with a refugee,” Vang said. “I think what’s cool is we can kind of bridge those two worlds.”
Customers say they get the satisfaction from a tasty meal and a deeper understanding of stories like Abdalraheem’s.
“It’s a win-win. I get his food and I also can feel that I’m helping him through what must be just an incredibly difficult, difficult time,” said Danielle Frum, who frequently orders from Foodhini.
Abdalraheem may run his own operation at work, but at home he jokes that his job is to be the sous chef for Jadallah.
“Manager kitchen - my wife,” Abdalraheem says in broken English with a hearty laugh.
The two dance around each other in the close quarters of their small home, as they bring out dishes of fatteh, kabsa and fattoush to the table.
Just before iftar time - the evening meal to break the Ramadan fast - a neighbor knocks on the door. It’s the son of the Iraqi immigrant family upstairs. He’s brought several dishes to share, a gesture of Ramadan kindness that will be reciprocated by Abdalraheem and his wife in the coming days.
Their whole apartment complex is filled with immigrants and refugees from around the world. A sign outside the gate proclaims, “We Welcome Refugees.”
Says Jadallah, “Coming to America was a gift from God.”