Syrian Refugees Respond To Hurricane Irma By Cooking Feasts For Evacuees

They were compelled to help because they know what it's like to lose everything, they said.

Abeer and Nora al-Sheikh Bakri are sisters from Douma, Syria. They fled their homeland in 2012 after their country’s civil war engulfed the city. They spent four years in Egypt before being resettled in Clarkson, Georgia, in 2016 with other members of their families.

Suffice to say they know what it’s like to watch homes crumble before their eyes. So when Hurricane Irma bore its weight down on the southeastern U.S., displacing more than half a million people by Sunday, they sprung into action.

I called my sister Nora and we got cooking,” Abeer, 28, told HuffPost on Tuesday by phone. They drove an hour to the Hamzah Islamic Center in Alpharetta, Georgia, on Sunday evening, where they said about 39 evacuees were riding out the storm.

The Bakri sisters' feast, which served about 39 evacuees on Sunday.
The Bakri sisters' feast, which served about 39 evacuees on Sunday.

A friend told the sisters about the storm-related evacuations on Saturday night, Abeer said, so they went grocery shopping and prepared traditional Middle Eastern dishes like tabbouleh and kebab. 

“We were uprooted from war,” Abeer said. “We know the feeling of leaving everything behind.”

“I was so afraid when we heard about the hurricane,” Nora, 30, said. “Especially us Syrians. We’re already traumatized.”

The mosque tried to pay the sisters for their cooking, she added, but they wouldn’t accept. Instead, they simply took pride in volunteering on behalf of her fellow community members.

“I wanted to be able to help these people, so that these people can feel happiness,” she said. “So they don’t feel uprooted like how we felt.”

She said she hopes the gesture speaks to who they are as people. “We are the same as Americans. We don’t wish ill on anyone. This is within our nature as Syrians. This is what our religion tells us to do, to give and help those in need.”

Their efforts have not gone unnoticed.

“The food looks fantastic and what a wonderful gesture. Best wishes to your new beginnings from Portland, OR and welcome to your new home!” said Stephanie Estby on Facebook when she saw photos of the sisters’ meal.

“What a selfless and lovely gesture. Everything looks absolutely delicious! Welcome to our country and best of luck to you. I hope that you’re treated with kindness and respect here and your business thrives for many years to come!” wrote Claudia Maus from Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin. 

We were uprooted from war. We know the feeling of leaving everything behind.” Abeer Al-Sheikh Bakri

The Bakris are accustomed to cooking for large groups. They’re currently working on starting a catering company called Sweet and Savory.

Their husbands, who also happen to be brothers, tried opening a cafe while the families were in Egypt, Abeer said. It didn’t work out, but upon resettlement in Clarkson they were encouraged to try again, this time with an online presence. 

Dr. Mona Megahed, a pediatration and the vice president of the Atlanta chapter of the Syrian Community Network, a nonprofit that helps Syrian refugees in Georgia, said that every time she would visit them, “they would offer these amazing entrees and we told them that they needed to sell this stuff. Too good not to be shared.”

Nazer Ghazal and his son in front of one of his spreads.
Nazer Ghazal and his son in front of one of his spreads.

Nazer Ghazal, a 53-year-old Syrian refugee from Damascus living in nearby Tucker, Georgia, had the same instinct. Ghazal resettled to Georgia from Jordan November of last year. A food artist and chef, he said he delivered a home-cooked meal including rice, chicken and salad, to Masjid Omar Bin Abdul Aziz mosque on Sunday where approximately 25 evacuees sought shelter.

Like the Bakri sisters, Ghazal understood the feeling of leaving everything behind and starting new.

“We were forced to come to the U.S. because of the war, but we’re here now and see good in this country,” he said Tuesday. “It’s on us now to do good here.”

The Georgia climate is new to him and it’s his first time experiencing a hurricane, he said. “We’re used to wars but not hurricanes. We weren’t that afraid, to be honest. We’ve been through war.”

Ghazal's food art for the Islamic holiday of Eid.
Ghazal's food art for the Islamic holiday of Eid.
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