A Lower East Side Dinner Series Creates Opportunity for Refugees

Cooks participating in Komeeda’s “Displaced Kitchen” dinner series prepare traditional dishes and share stories from their home country.

This story is part of 1 Minute Meal, a documentary series that uses food to reveal the communities, legacies, dreams, realities and unseen forces that shape life in New York City.

Lutfi has been forced to leave nearly every country he’s tried to make his home. In his native Syria he was scorned by family. In Bahrain he was arrested at a house party. In Dubai, he was entrapped in a sting operation run by state security, falsely accused of prostitution, and forcefully deported back to Syria. As civil war raged in Damascus he could find no safe haven, and moved to Cairo as a last resort. When regime change in Egypt threw his life back into jeopardy, he prepared to board a rickety lifeboat headed for Turkey. Stricken by fear of drowning along the way, he turned back to the city and applied for refugee status with the United Nations.

Lutfi, whose refugee application was eventually accepted by the United States, has mostly lived in exile because he is gay. Starting over once again in New York City, he faces many challenges: a meager sum of government assistance, no social network and no ability to read or write in English. Yet, for the first time in years Lutfi is optimistic, because he feels that in New York he doesn’t have to choose between being himself and being alive.

This one large step of liberation makes all the difference. So does Lutfi’s small but essential group of new friends. As part of Komeeda’s “Displaced Kitchen” dinner series, he’s built relationships that have helped him find a temporary home in the Bronx, a SoHo job fitting his professional background in fashion and a venue for sharing his story with New Yorkers willing to listen. Every other week Lutfi cooks traditional Syrian dishes and recounts how he got the United States, earning some extra cash and making new friends along the way.

Displaced Kitchen is one of many community-grown initiatives that seek to help refugees. When Lutfi speaks to his dinner patrons at these events, he stresses just how lucky he was to make it to New York. While his is a story of hope, it’s also a reminder that there are many Lutfis in the world, praying for a simple dinner in the company of friends—and that every step closer to this wish is worth the effort.

Through September 1st, Edible Manhattan is collaborating with Edible Brooklyn, Edible Queens, Edible Bronx, and the Staten Island Advance to debut 30 new videos about food and life. Subscribe to 1 Minute Meal to see food films from all five boroughs.

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James Boo is a multimedia journalist based in Brooklyn. As Editor-in-Chief of Real Cheap Eats, an independent filmmaker, and a freelance food writer, James has devoted his storytelling career to the intersection of food and culture. You can see more episodes of this web series at oneminutemealfilms.com.