In English, you say “break bread” when you commune with friends over food. In Arabic, you say “have salt and bread.”
“To have salt and bread with someone, you are brothers,” said Ahmed Al Omar, a Syrian refugee who came to Philadelphia four months ago.
Originally from Idlib, a city near Aleppo currently held by rebel forces, Al Omar fled to find a better place for his wife and six children. He was surprised by the warm welcome he got in Philadelphia.
“America is only the government; we do not know who the people are,” he said through a translator. “When we came here it was beyond our expectation. The people are very, very nice; are extremely welcoming and like to help others.”
Al Omar was one of about 40 newly arrived refugees from Syria invited to participate in a cooking demonstration and facilitated conversation with his Philadelphia neighbors, held at the Reading Terminal Market on Tuesday evening.
It was the third of a series of dinners called “Breaking Bread, Breaking Barriers,” funded by the Knight Foundation to foster dialogue between selected cultures in the city. Previous dinner brought together West African immigrants with African-American communities, and Koreans business owners and their African-American neighbors along the 52nd Street commercial corridor in West Philadelphia.
Planned months ago, it’s just a coincidence that the event with Syrian refugees and longstanding residents in the Mayfair neighborhood their would happen just days after President Trump signed an executive order temporarily banning Syrians from entering the United States. It attracted more than double the number of participants than other dinners.
“Our country is doing things right now that I could never have imagined,” said the Reading Termional Market’s manager, Anuj Gupta, to the Syrians. “I am here today because my my grandmother had a chance to flee a warzone between India and Pakistan to come to a safe haven.
“I can’t account for what leaders in Washington are saying right now, but here at the Reading Terminal Market — along with our longstanding friends in the lower Northeast — you’re all welcome here,” he said.
Gupta then turned it over to Jack McDavid, owner of the Reading Terminal’s Down Home Diner, to demonstrated three signature dishes.
“One’s going to be a blackened catfish, second going to be collard greens, third’s going to be buttermilk squash,” said McDavid. “I cook this from my heart. This is the way we invite people into our home, our country, and into our life. Welcome to our life.”
Curious women in hijabs crowded around McDavid to investigate a leafy vegetable unknown to them — collard greens — spiced by something equally strange: chipotle. He held out a dish of the smoked hot pepper with a warning that it is very hot.
“Mix the acid from vineagar, with the sweetness of molasses, with the heat from the chipotle,” he explained. “When you blend them together, everything comes together and makes it very balanced.”
On the other side of the demo kitchen, two Syrian brothers prepared their native dish, falafel and humus. Hesham and Adham Albarouki run Kamal’s Middle Eastern Specialties, a food stand in the Reading Terminal Market.
They were offering something much more familiar to the Syrians. One woman rushed up with them, speaking in Arabic and excited to show them photos on her cell phone of dishes she had prepared at home.
It was a good time for a lot of them, but there was a side of fear. Laura and her sister — two young women in their 20’s who did not want their full names used for fear their family may face danger in Syria — came to the U.S. four years ago on student visas to study English. Then the war broke out. Their family had to flee the city of Homs. Their home was burned down by government forces rooting out rebels.
When they graduated they could not return to Syria for fear of persecution. They have applied for asylum, but the new political climate could put their application in jeopardy.
“We are scared a little bit. We feel insecure. We have no place to go. Literally. They just burned our house,” said Laura.
“Since we came here we have not seen our parents,” her sister added.
They came to the dinner to meet new people, and to get a sense of security through food. Through interpreters, people described their favorite foods, from Spanish paella, to Venezuelan empanadas, to Jamaican jerk chicken, to Syrian kibbah.
Of all the dishes with their unusual names and exotic seasoning, some Syrian mothers were hoping to come away with something more basic.
“She wishes she could learn about hamburger,” said Abdul Salem Waki, a refugee who came to Philadelphia with his wife and five children in November. “Kids love this food, but she doesn’t know how to do the American hamburger.”