Mera Kitchen Collective is a co-op founded by five women that uses food as a way to empower immigrant women. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun video)
The five founders of the Mera Kitchen Collective speak in several tongues. Arabic, English and French dominate their conversations around the dinner table, and their group's name stems from a Greek word. But their common language is food.
It's been a little more than a year since the women first gathered for a meal at Iman Alshehab's Moravia apartment to discuss ways to empower refugee and immigrant women through food. What started as a series of pop-up dinners and workshops has grown into a worker-owned cooperative with plans to open a cafe — a space they hope will become a hub for Baltimore's growing immigrant community and a workplace that supports women.
On Saturday, the group will host the Refugee and Immigrant Arts Feast in Charles Village, where more than a dozen immigrant artisans and food vendors will sell their wares. And on May 6, they will begin making weekly appearances at the Baltimore Farmers' Market and Bazaar, serving delicacies like Alshehab's Syrian charcoal rice.
Alshehab was a chef at the Four Seasons Hotel in Damascus before fleeing the Syrian civil war. It's an unwritten rule that she cooks for the group at their home gatherings, concocting dishes like cheese-stuffed honeycomb bread, spinach pastries and lentil soup, replenishing the table with second and third helpings before her guests' first servings have been eaten. They get together multiple times each week to continue their work of bringing entrepreneurship opportunities to women like Alshehab.
"We all kind of came together to focus on women's empowerment," said Aishah AlFadhalah, a Mera co-founder who hails from Kuwait and mentors refugee families for the International Rescue Committee.
Catonsville churches are working with Syrian refugee families in the Baltimore area, giving them a local support system to help them overcome the challenges of starting a new life in a foreign country.
The five women have equal say in decision making, and they share profits, though they have different roles in the organization. Liliane Makole, who owned a cafe in her home country of Cameroon, cooks alongside Alshehab. She and AlFadhalah also handle outreach and foster connections with the immigrant and refugee community. Brittany DeNovellis, a program coordinator for Baltimore City Community College's Refugee Youth Project, works with them on outreach, coordinates volunteers and builds partnerships for Mera. And Emily Lerman, a program coordinator for a humanitarian medical organization, focuses on Mera's development, partnerships and events.
It's a structure that aligns with their key objective: giving women ownership of their work.
"If the goal was to be like, 'We want to get Iman a restaurant, we want to get Liliane a restaurant,' we could have done that. … And that's not the goal," Lerman said. "We can do this — we can change what narrative looks like around the system for refugees."
According to the Maryland Office for Refugees and Asylees, more than 3,000 refugees resettled in Baltimore between October 2011 and September 2016. The city's foreign-born residents helped soften the blow even as others moved out — Baltimore added about 5,000 immigrants between 2010 and 2016; by comparison, the overall population fell by about 9,000 between 2010 and 2017, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
After a series of test dinners at their homes, Mera Kitchen Collective held its first event at Hersh's in South Baltimore in June.
"We wanted to do something together because … there was the war on the idea of refugees in this country, and a war of words," said chef-owner Josh Hershkovitz. "It was a big deal to us, too — we're the children of immigrants and most of the people in this country wouldn't be here if it weren't for that."
Hershkovitz worked with Alshehab, who speaks little English, to prepare Syrian delicacies for the sold-out pop-up dinner.
"There was a translator there all day, but then it stopped really being necessary," he said. "It was pretty cool how the language barrier fell away."
Alshehab's cooking reflects the same careful intention that inspired her group's name. "Mera Kitchen" is drawn from "meraki," a Greek word that means to pour one's soul into the task at hand, and give of oneself with full devotion or love.
"It's a sense of community, a sense of being part of something big, a part of something meaningful. For me I feel like I'm changing — not the world, but I'm changing the narrative in Baltimore," said Makole, the native of Cameroon whose plantain dishes will soon be sold at the JFX farmers' market. "It's more than a restaurant. It's a community. We are sharing love. We are changing lives."
In November, the group joined the Johns Hopkins University Social Innovation Lab, which provides mentorship, funding and other resources to 10 organizations from November through April. The most recent session culminated with a pitch showcase Tuesday. Alex Riehm, director of the Social Innovation Lab, has watched the members of Mera double down on their work during the past six months, contributing as much to their fellow cohort members as they've learned.
"That is something that they've lived not only in the organization that they're building, but also in our group," he said.
In addition, Mera is building a nonprofit arm aimed at training people in leadership skills and entrepreneurship.
"So many times people are like, 'Oh refugees, they come to this country — or immigrants — and they're just using all the resources,'" DeNovellis said. "And we're trying to say, 'They are the resources in this case.' We've all gotten so much out of this."
They've looked to Red Emma's Bookstore Coffeehouse for guidance as they've modeled their co-op, and continue to seek the fellow collective's advice as they grow.
"There's a lot more people, and we're slowly incorporating them in more and more that we're doing," Lerman said. So far the group has partnered with five other women, and at least 15 vendors will take part in the Refugee and Immigrant Arts Feast. "The reason we're eager to get [cafe] space is because it just allows more opportunity for more people."
Opening a restaurant is difficult enough for lifelong Baltimoreans, let alone aspiring restaurateurs who aren't fluent in English or familiar with the city's layers of bureaucracy. But the women of Mera said from Day 1 they've received support from the city's food community, including restaurateurs like Lane Harlan, who hosted the group's second pop-up dinner at Clavel in November. That event sold out, too.
"They're essentially giving opportunities to immigrant and refugee women. That's right up our alley," Harlan said. "When you give people opportunity that are coming from other countries with such deep-seeded traditions, it's adding diversity to our food culture."
Alshehab teamed up with Clavel chef Carlos Raba to put on a dinner called "Wonders of Damascus," a five-course meal fusing traditional Syrian cuisine with the flavors of Sinaloa, Mexico.
She'll also head the kitchen at Mera's future cafe. The group is finalizing its lease on the space, which will be in Charles Village or Station North, and they hope to open the doors within six months. It will be a home base and preparation space for pop-ups, the farmers' market and other events, and allow the group to take on more catering orders. All five founders have day jobs, and they can't keep up with requests for catering now.
For Alshehab, the cafe will be a game-changer. It now takes her two hours and two buses one-way to reach her job as a seamstress at Blind Industries and Services of Maryland in Southwest Baltimore. The centrally located restaurant will be closer to home and place her back in the kitchen.
Alshehab said Mera Kitchen Collective has provided her with a sense of family, even though her sons live in Jordan.
"It made me miss my family less," Alshehab said through AlFadhalah, who was translating. "I don't feel my sons are far away from me. Yes, I miss my children, but this makes me cope better."
Added AlFadhalah: "Now whenever she tells her son that she's having us here, her son calls us her children."