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Missoula’s Most In-Demand Kitchen Is Run By Refugees

MISSOULA, Mont. — Dressed in a crisp gray chef’s coat over a pink sweater, Ghalia Ahmad Fayez AlMasri gave instructions to her kitchen team as Egyptian and Lebanese dance music blared from the speakers of a mobile phone. On this Tuesday evening in March, Ms AlMasri’s crew of eight had 150 meals to prepare – a total sale.

Around Missoula, a college town of 75,000, Ms. AlMasri, 33, has become a minor celebrity. Customers in jeans and chunky boots had lined up outside in sub-zero temperatures to sample his baba ghanouj and halawa bi smeed, a semolina pudding topped with pistachios.

“People know me,” Ms. AlMasri said. “When I’m cooking, my meal goes very, very fast – 15 minutes this time.”

The kitchen she works in, one of the most popular in the city, is located in the nondescript basement of the First United Methodist Church on East Main Street. The dinners are part of a weekly program called United We Eat @Home, where refugees and other immigrants living in Missoula cook takeout to supplement their income.

Launched during the pandemic by Soft Landing Missoula, a nonprofit group that supports refugees and immigrants around the world, take-out meals have been hugely popular – more than 2,200 people receive the weekly menu by email on Thursdays at 9 o’clock. When these reviews hit inboxes, it’s a race against time: Meals sold out every week, often in less than 30 minutes.

Their success prompted United We Eat to hire its first refugee staff member, Rozan Shbib, as a kitchen assistant last year. The program also helped refugees apply for farmer’s market permits and enabled Masala, a curry restaurant in downtown Missoula, to hire staff almost entirely made up of refugees.

Ms. AlMasri, who fled conflict in Damascus, Syria, arrived in Missoula in 2017 with her husband and two sons, then aged 6 and 8. She is one of 431 refugees and nearly 100 Afghan evacuees who have been resettled in Missoula by the International Rescue Committee since 2016, and one of 18 home cooks participating in the United We Eat program.

These cooks – from Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iraq, Pakistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and elsewhere – face many of the same challenges as restaurant chefs. They plan their menus a month in advance so that they have enough time to order specific ingredients, such as halal meat, teff flour and Aahu Barah brand basmati rice. They consider how spicy a sauce can be without offending sensitive palates. They worry about whether their food will still look appetizing when diners bring it home.

Facing a group of customers, Ms AlMasri delicately tucked her meals into the canvas tote bags they had brought. She arranged boxes filled with shakriya, a tender chicken dish coated in a rich yogurt sauce over vermicelli pilaf; and zahrah, an intensely flavorful cauliflower stew. She stacked eight-ounce deli containers filled with baba ghanouj, explaining that the phrase means “spoiled daddy” in Arabic. Meat dishes are its best sellers – this is Montana, after all.

A few customers thanked her with the Arabic word “shukran”. The translation was written alongside a few other phrases in English and Arabic script on a whiteboard near the service table, encouraging Missulians to communicate in Ms. AlMasri’s native language and pushing them out of their comfort zone. “Bindura” means tomato; the chicken is “dajaj”.

“It’s about changing those power dynamics and making sure that in that space, that’s the sphere of the refugee leader,” said program manager Beth Baker.

The cooks each earn an average profit of $850 per meal service. Selling dishes of beef kefta, potato pakura and rote enabled 51-year-old Farida Abdul Aziz to send money to her son, Sohil, in Afghanistan. Cooking, she said, makes her “a lot of money,” which supplements the salary she earns working in the deli section of a local Walmart.

“But it’s not just the money that counts,” Ms Abdul Aziz said. “I take advantage of people.”

Ms Abdul Aziz sought asylum in the United States in 2014, leaving her five children – including Sohil, her youngest, who was 12 – in Afghanistan. In early March, Sohil was granted entry under a US citizenship and immigration services program that reunites refugee and asylum-seeking families. After eight years apart, mother and son embraced in a long embrace at the Missoula Montana airport. United We Eat shared the news in a subsequent newsletter, an effort to get to know customers better with Ms Abdul Aziz and her family.

Most customers recognize familiar chef faces and look forward to specific cuisines. Their only complaint: the dishes sell out too quickly.

Jim Streeter, 72, a retired accounting and finance professional in Missoula, waits on his home computer for Thursday morning emails. One week in February, even that didn’t work out. Mr. Streeter came downstairs to deliver the menu for the coming week to his wife, Sara, but by the time he returned to the computer it was full.

Guests say the meals offer a culinary diversity they can’t find elsewhere. The Census Bureau estimated Missoula County’s population to be 91.7 percent white in 2021. Without the United We Eat program, Missoul residents would have no place to order Congolese, Pakistani, or Guinean food.

Tri Pham, 49, a high school counselor who has ordered from United We Eat almost weekly since last fall, says his wife and daughters look forward to the variety. Slips of paper included with every order explain the dishes, their ingredients and the chef’s background. The biography included with Ms. AlMasri’s meal mentioned her arrival in Missoula during a record-breaking cold snap and described how eggplants for baba ghanouj are usually roasted over an open flame for a lightly smoky flavor.

“We love exposing our girls to it so they get a broader view of the world,” Mr. Pham said, “that it’s not just about burgers and fries.”

Soft Landing’s culinary program mirrors those in other states, such as the New Arrival Supper Club in Los Angeles; Welcome Voisin STL in Saint-Louis; Breaking bread, breaking boundaries in Dallas; and Sanctuary Kitchen in New Haven, Connecticut. But since Montana was one of only two states not accepting refugees when Soft Landing Missoula began in 2015, it’s been an especially important tool for cultural exchange.

“There’s so much more to the culture of these countries than what people see on the news,” said Missoulian editor Dave Erickson, 40. “You hear that there are refugees here. But when you actually meet someone from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, you realize ‘Oh, Missoula is home to a whole community of people from that country.’

Mary Poole, the executive director of Soft Landing Missoula, wants Missulians to see refugees and other immigrants as assets. Many newcomers aspire to open businesses, which the program supports through a Business 101 class at the Lifelong Learning Center in Missoula.

Owning a Syrian restaurant is Ms. AlMasri’s goal. She is encouraged by the reputation she has gained for her takeout meals and would like to serve a wider menu of Hindi kebab, freekeh salad and khafeh.

“Some of them don’t know me, but they try my food, and next time they will know me,” Ms AlMasri said. “They will know my food.”


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