Selling Shawarma Helps This Syrian Refugee Adapt to Life in America
Chef Majed Abdulraheem is part of a D.C. delivery service’s network of immigrant chefs
SOURCE: EATER WASHINGTON DC
BY: DAYANA SARKISOVA
As the lunch rush builds on a recent Friday morning at the Whole Foods in Foggy Bottom, a line forms around the Syrian shawarma stand manned by chef Majed Abdulraheem. He’s prepared a cart with vats of hummus, bags of arugula, and jars of pickles, and he’s unfazed as orders begin to pile up. Abdulraheem keeps an eye on chicken sizzling on a flat top grill while he constructs an assembly line of flatbread sandwiches. Drizzling pomegranate molasses over his finished product, he boxes everything up and sends customers on their way, one after the other.
The appeal of Abdulraheem’s food is apparent from the crowd gathered at the cart. In addition to selling shawarma, the chef is also sharing his story. At the stand in Whole Foods, he’s representing Foodhini, a delivery service that partners with immigrant chefs.
A refugee from Syria who moved to the United States three years ago with his wife and two daughters, Abdulraheem has learned to embrace the interest the community has in not only his food, but his background as well.
“I like to share my food and my country with people here. This food is my country,” he says.
Originally from Daraa, Syria, Abdulraheem fled to Jordan in 2013 when war ravaged life as he knew it. While in Jordan he married his wife, Walaa, and they had two children, Rama and Lara. At the same time, he struggled to find work because of his Syrian background.
“I work in Jordan — like you say in English — under the table,” he notes of his time as a sous chef in a local restaurant. Dreaming of a better life, one in which he didn’t constantly worry for the safety of his daughters, Abdulraheem moved his family to the United States in 2016.
“It’s not easy to move from Syria; not like I go and get [a] passport down the street,” Abdulraheem explains. He had to travel at night, moving through mountains and refugee camps. “It took 10 to 15 days and it’s very hard,” he says.
After moving to the states, Abdulraheem and his family first settled in Arizona, where he worked in a Mexican-American restaurant. But after eight months they relocated to Maryland with the intention of Abdulraheem finding more culinary work in a bigger city. Almost immediately, Abdulraheem heard from Noobtsaa Vang.
Vang was in the process of finding resettled refugee chefs who would be interested in working for Foodhini — the company he created in 2014 as a tribute to his parents, who relocated to the United States as refugees in 1976. Vang strived to create a business where refugee cooks could use their skills to earn a living while making a positive impact on the international conversation surrounding refugees.
“With the political climate, the discussion around immigrants, and the ban on people coming from specific countries — I think it’s a reason why we exist,” said Vang. “We can show that these people are doing such amazing things for our communities.”
Foodhini features a range of cuisines available for online delivery orders, including Syrian, Lao, Iranian, and Ethiopian. The company recently partnered with Whole Foods to set up a food stall in the Foggy Bottom store that will feature different chefs in three-month rotations.
Considering his welcoming personality and approachable menu of chicken shawarma, hummus, and salad, Abdulraheem was the obvious choice to go first, Vang says. According to Whole Foods, he has about a month or two left on his turn.
‘We wanted to make sure that people were semi-familiar with the menu, but also introduce them to something that might be a little different, a little unique,” Vang says. “Chef Abdulraheem also loved the idea of being able to be in front of people, talk to them, and teach them about his food and where it’s from.”
“Also,” Vang adds, “it’s just really, really good food. It’s delicious.”
Abdulraheem combines traditional Syrian ingredients like cardamom, sumac and pomegranate molasses to build out his menu. During his time in Arizona, he was influenced by the local cuisine, so he began incorporating Mexican ingredients into his cooking, too.
“I always talk to people when I see them buying the Foodhini shawarma. A lot are like, ‘I’m obsessed, I get them twice a week,’” says Andrew Coon, Store Leader of the Foggy Bottom Whole Foods. “So all around it’s been really positive so far. People have been excited just to have something unique, with a story behind it that they can connect to.”
Chef Abdulraheem is quick to explain that it’s not necessarily the recipe for the chicken shawarma itself that makes the dish special — it’s the recipe’s origin.
“Culinary school gave me many recipes, but my luck with me is my mother’s good cooking,” he says. Then he breaks into deep, happy laughter and admits, “My mother is better than me.”
Abdulraheem grew up cooking alongside his mother for friends and neighbors, picking up her skills and recipes — which he incorporates into his Foodhini menu — along the way. He hasn’t seen her in nearly six years.
“I miss my mother,” he says. “And I miss it too much, this food from my mother. Because she [cooks unlike] anybody.”
Although the distance between his new home and his old one takes a heavy toll, Abdulraheem is building meaningful connections in the U.S. with his co-workers at Foodhini. He says, Vang, the founder, is “like my brother,” and another refugee chef is like his sister. “It’s not just work that connects us,” he says. “We have more than that.”
Abdulraheem originally envisioned opening his own restaurant, but the connections he’s formed at Foodhini have made him reconsider that dream. He feels personally invested in the company’s future, he says. He recognizes the opportunities it could create for other refugees to find their way in D.C.
“If you have anything inside you, America is open for you and you can do that. When you can go to work, it’s easy for life,” he says. “Because of this I like America — what you imagine you can do here, you can.”