Syrian Refugee’s Special Meals for Upper West Side Church Members Become Basis of New Cookbook

Mayada Anjari. Photos by Liz Clayman.

By Lisa Kava

An Upper West Side church community came together to help Syrian refugee Mayada Anjari and her family adapt to their new life in the United States. Now, meals that Anjari cooked for church members and others have been compiled into a cookbook.

The cookbook, The Bread and Salt Between Us, is a culmination of the efforts of church members and volunteers from the Rutgers Presbyterian Church on West 73rd Street to help Anjari, originally from Syria, who immigrated from Jordan to the United States with her family.

The story begins in the fall of 2015 when members of the church’s New Americans Committee (formerly called the Refugee Task Force) had been discussing possible ways to help refugees according to Nancy Muirhead, the chair of the committee.

“We wanted to do something hands on so we decided to sponsor a family through Church World Service, one of nine agencies that helps to resettle refugees,” said Muirhead.  Mayada Anjari’s family had applied for refugee status through the U.N. and was assigned to Church World Service who in turn assigned the family to the Rutgers Presbyterian Church.  Mayada and her family, including her four children — ages 14, 12, 11 and 4 — arrived in March 2016. The church-member volunteers greeted the family at the airport, brought them to their new apartment in Jersey City, and had a meal ready and waiting. Members of the church had also donated furniture and clothing.

Six months later, Mayada invited the church volunteers to her apartment for a home-cooked meal as a way of saying thank you.

“The church members each and every one of them really stepped it up for me and my family,” Mayada told West Side Rag in an interview through her translator Dalia El- Newehy. “They are great people and I wanted to thank them.”

Mayada recalled learning to cook in Syria from her mother and sister in law and mentioned that she has been devoted to cooking for 14 years. The guests enjoyed the meal and the company at Mayada’s home. “We were overwhelmed with how good her cooking was and we wanted to help her more,” said Muirhead. “We thought to organize some fundraisers at the church where Mayada could cook.”

Shortly after, on November 6, 2018, an event called “Dinner with Mayada and Friends” took place at the Rutgers Church. Mayada cooked in the church’s kitchen and the dinner was open to all church members, neighbors and friends. There was plenty of good food and interesting conversation. “The dinner helped build understanding and support for refugees among the community,” explained Dave Mammen, Church Administrator for Rutgers Presbyterian Church.

The event was so successful that it inspired a series of additional dinners, which expanded to other churches and synagogues in Manhattan, according to Mammen. One thing was clear after each dinner — all who attended were in agreement that Mayada’s cooking was delicious. Mammen recalls a few dinner guests suggesting that Mayada put together a cookbook. Intrigued by the idea, Mammen reached out to various church members. One member had a friend who designed books, another knew a photographer and another was acquainted with a food writer. One of the tenants in the building that the church owns on West 73rd Street happened to be Lake Isle Press, a publisher of cookbooks.

“Friends of Upper West Siders through connections were able to find people to help put this all in place,” said Muirhead. The recipes in the book are all Mayada’s family recipes from Syria. But Mayada did not have any recipes written, she would just go ahead and cook.  Determined to help, a team of church volunteers visited Mayada at her home every Saturday, testing her recipes and working together with Mayada to put the details on paper.  “It was a real labor of love of many people,” said Muirhead.

What began as an interesting idea became a reality in September 2018 when The Bread and Salt Between Us was published. “It was a great joy for me to work with such a talented and devoted team — actually they did all the work!” exclaimed Mammen. “And they and Mayada deserve ALL the credit for the book’s success.”

In The Bread and Salt Between Us, Mayada focuses on variety and meals that she enjoys cooking at home for her family. Mayada pointed out that her favorite recipes in the book are Kabsa (a rice and chicken dish) and Mulikhya ( a green vegetable dish.) On her family’s adjustment to living in the United States Mayada said “We like it here and we are more settled now. Of course we miss home. But we have opportunities here.”

Mayada may find other ways to spread happiness with her cooking; she would love to eventually one day open up a catering business.

Information on the cookbook and future community dinners with Mayada can be found here

FOOD | 4 comments | permalink
    1. Alice B says:

      The cookbook is available from Amazon and is terrific!!!!!

    2. JM says:

      Love this story!!!!!

    3. Anne says:

      The kindness and generosity of everyone involved in this project is so inspiring. What an uplifting story in a time of so much negative news. Thanks for sharing!

    4. Kathleen says:

      How wonderful to see people coming together to help others in this polarized time. What a loving community. Welcome to the US, Mayada and family!