Nabil Al Zouabi ran his own falafel restaurant in Syria before he and his family were forced to flee. Now he works at the Centennial Hotel in Spokane.
Nabil and his wife, Sawsan Al Zouabi, never considered leaving Syria.
“Syria is a very beautiful country and you never think, ‘I want to leave this country,’” Sawsan said.
Even in the year before they left, they don’t remember thinking “Maybe we’ll have to leave.” The day they realized they needed to go was the day their village was attacked.
“Until the last minute, we were sure it was going to end,” Sawsan said. “When we saw people die and bombings and all kinds of weapons, when we saw all that – it was a shock. We thought, ‘Oh, that’s it.’ ”
It’s families like the Al Zouabis who Ross Carper supports, as they cook their country’s most popular dishes for takeout customers.
The nonprofit Feast World Kitchens is still under construction, but the kitchen is finished, up to code and operating. In a rotating schedule, former refugee and immigrant chefs take over the kitchen and sell food from their homelands.
Carper, one of the organization’s founders, said Feast doesn’t just raise money for refugee families. It gets them connected in the community. It’s also a platform for cultural exchange.
“The basic reality is when you gather around the table with someone and give and receive mutual hospitality, we believe those stereotypes and racism that clouds the way we think of certain groups, it melts away to some extent,” Carper said.
Carper said starting a restaurant takes a lot of money up front. Through Feast, former refugee chefs pay a minimal fee to cook in a large kitchen and sell their food without having to worry about the debt people often dive into to start a business, Carper said.
Feast offers takeout Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, with a different chef each day. About 30 former refugee and immigrant cooks are in rotation, serving up traditional food from their homelands that include Pakistan, Syria, Senegal, Nepal and Eritrea.
They make good money, too, Carper said. On a good night, with about 50 families buying meals, chefs can make enough money to pay a couple of months of rent – especially helpful for immigrants who aren’t fluent in English and work in lower-level service industry jobs.
Chefs don’t waste money on food. Feast’s patrons order throughout the week at feastworldkitchen.org at least one day before they pick up their meals. That way, families can buy the exact amount of ingredients they’ll need.
Though Carper is proud of what Feast has become, he isn’t comfortable taking the credit. He estimates 500 people have donated their time, skills or money to make Feast work.
“It’s a real neighborhood story,” Carper said.
The idea for the nonprofit began in 2019 with Daniel Todd, owner of Inland Curry, a weekly takeout kitchen offering Indian cuisine every Thursday evening. The Al Zouabis said they connected with Carper through Todd, too.
First Presbyterian Church of Spokane bought and donated the building across from it, now covered in murals by immigrants and under renovation by an Iraqi family business.
Carper works half time at First Presbyterian as the director of Missional Engagement, or, as he describes his job: “helping mobilize ways to love our neighbors.”
The church has had a long history of supporting immigrants, including through teaching English, Carper said.
“This isn’t a religious nonprofit or a program of the church, but there are faith-based reasons for it. That’s our calling and our joy, to welcome people,” Carper said.
He said now there’s greater need than ever. Every minute in 2018, 25 people were forced to flee their homes, and that’s a rising international trend, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency.
Carper pointed out the men working on the dining area of Feast, all part of Madhi Altameemi’s business Blue Sky Remodeling. They all fled Iraq.
“They are literally here because we invaded their country in 2003,” Carper said.
Maisa Abudayha, the chef program director and sole full-time employee at Feast, lives right between Inland Curry and Carper’s food truck he’d been operating when he started developing ideas for Feast.
Accountants, graphic designers and other professionals pitched in to get the place going.
Importantly, Carper said, refugees were actually asking about a business model like Feast’s.
“It’s important to humbly discern whether the community you’re serving is actually asking for it,” Carper said.
In this case, pop-up food businesses, food trucks and other small enterprise opportunities were all ideas refugees were asking about.
In April of this year, the kitchen opened, and chefs started making their food for customers.
Nabil Al Zouabi wants to start his own restaurant, but money is tight. He’s found Spokane to be beautiful, if a little too cold in the winter. He and his wife describe Americans as “very warm, welcoming and helpful.”
Carper sees room for improvement in Spokane’s culture of welcoming immigrants. He hopes tasting foreign cuisine can be a stepping stone to fulfill Feast’s motto: “less fear, more falafel.”
“It’s important to speak out against the negative things happening. That’s really important, valid advocacy,” Carper said.
“But it’s also important to create new spaces, and we feel honored to create a new space where former refugees and immigrants can thrive in Spokane.”
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