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Neman: Organization helps refugees by letting them cook

Neman: Organization helps refugees by letting them cook

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Welcome Neighbor

Maysaa Telemesai prepares a meal for the supper club at Welcome Neighbor STL. Thanks, Photo by Jessica Bueler

Imagine you’re a refugee. You have fled your home country because of civil war or danger or poverty. You end up in a new country, but you don’t speak the language, you don’t know the people, you have no immediate way of making a living.

You know how to cook the food of your native country, but you don’t think of that as a marketable skill. It is as natural to you as breathing.

If you moved to the United States and you ended up in St. Louis, you may be in luck.

An organization named Welcome Neighbor STL holds what it calls supper clubs, where anywhere from one to four new immigrants to the United States cook a meal from their homeland for a group of other Americans. As they serve the food, they can also share some information about their native culture.

“The idea is to build bridges with people who are different from yourself through food. Especially in today’s society when there is so much division between people, we focus on coming together and finding our similarities through food,” says Welcome Neighbor STL founder Jessica Bueler.

But there is more to it than that, a practical side for the women (and so far, they have all been women) cooking the food: The people who come to eat the food give a suggested donation of typically $25. Every penny of that money goes to the immigrants and refugees doing the cooking; the organization takes none of the cash for itself.

The cooks also make connections with the customers, some of whom hire the refugees to cook for private events, too.

Welcome Neighbor STL was founded just after the 2016 election, when Bueler read about a group of Syrian refugees who were attacked and beaten a mile from where she was working at the time, as director of marketing for the Delmar Loop.

“I had this moment like, ‘what are you going to do about it, Jessica?’” she says.

So she decided to get involved and help refugees, beginning with a single toiletry drive around Thanksgiving to give immigrant families some of the necessities they lacked.

That effort evolved into helping recent immigrants and refugees move out of some of the nearly uninhabitable housing where they had first moved. Along with the work in finding them new places to live, the group also found them new furniture and clothes; some of the old housing had bedbugs, which can be carried from one location to the next.

To move these refugee families, the group raised $20,000 from neighbors, friends and others — and none of it was tax-deductible. Though it did charitable work, Welcome Neighbor STL was not officially recognized as a charity until last week.

Last Wednesday, Welcome Neighbor received its 501(c)(3) status, due largely to its association with START — St. Louis Teens Aid Refugees Today. That is an organization of students from St. Louis Priory School for boys in Creve Coeur.

“It’s a natural fit,” Bueler said, adding that the boys can use their muscles to do the heavy lifting that the mostly female members of Welcome Neighbor cannot.

Though they originally began in people’s homes, the supper club events now usually take place in churches, synagogues and mosques. The food has to be cooked in commercial kitchens, and the immigrant cooks are all certified by ServSafe, which teaches the intricacies of food safety to professional food workers.

In order to facilitate the ServSafe certification, Christy Schlafly, the president and CEO of Ford Hotel Supply Co., paid to have the ServSafe written materials translated into Arabic.

“She had heard about our group and scheduled an event at her church,” Bueler said.

The organization currently works with 34 refugees and immigrants from Mexico, Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, and they are looking to add African nations.

A woman from Burkina Faso will be cooking for her first event on June 20, which is World Refugee Day. The event that day will feature four cooks from four countries (the others are Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan), which the organization has not done before. That supper club event will begin at 6 p.m. at Grace United Methodist Church, 6199 Waterman Boulevard; the suggested donation is $25.

The next event will be a night of Syrian cuisine (either with meat or vegetarian) at St. Margaret of Scotland Catholic Church, 3854 Flad Avenue. It will begin at 6:30 p.m. on June 14, and the suggested donation for this event is $30.

Bueler said the only disaster the group has had so far was her own fault. She gave one immigrant cook the wrong day for an event, and by the time Bueler realized it, the cook had made most of the food. They paid the woman for the food she had already made, and then she had to make it again for the right day.

“I felt really bad, but I ate really good that night,” Bueler said.

More information about Welcome Neighbor STL, including information on volunteering, donating or signing up for supper club events, can be found at welcomeneighborstl.com.

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