ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KMOV.com) -- Mawda Altayan didn’t know how to cook when she first got married, but she always took notes while her mother-in-law made her favorite meals. Those notes are gone now. Lost, like so many things Altayan treasured, to the rubble of war-torn Syria.
But before the pages disappeared, she committed the recipes to memory. Now, they’re used to feed homeless people in St. Louis; people in whom Altayan sees her family, and all the desperation they felt so recently.
“We all need some help in some way,” Altayan said. “But when you desperately need something and you get it, it’s indescribable.”
Now 23, she’s comfortable in the kitchen. She practiced those recipes she learned until they were her own, and she’s using her cooking skills to give back to the community that took her and her family in after the mass Syrian exodus.
“I looked around and saw roaches roaming the rooms. Where did they bring us?”
The Altayans left Syria in 2013 after the brutal civil war, which began in 2011 and continues to this day, came to their doorstep.
The shells demolished their restaurant and, stripped of their livelihood, they moved to Egypt and started the immigration process, applying for entry to the United States as refugees.
After three years of interviews and medical screenings, the family was granted the chance for a new life.
The life they found waiting from them in the U.S. felt worse than the one they escaped.
Their first stop was a small, unfurnished apartment in Hodiamont, just north of the Delmar Loop. Most refugees coming into St. Louis go through the International Institute(IISTL) as their first stop. The interpreter with IISTL advised Altayan, her husband and three kids not step foot outside of the apartment unless they absolutely had to due to lack of safety and security.
“I looked around and saw roaches roaming the rooms. Where did they bring us?” Altayan said. “I wish I would’ve stayed in Syria and died in the war than live here. I thought we were coming to America, to the promised American Dream.”
They were promised a safe, furnished home during their immigration training in Egypt. They were also told they would be moving to Pennsylvania, not Missouri. They were informed they were moving to St. Louis once their flight landed in New York.
Frightened and disoriented, the Altayans struggled to assimilate to an unfamiliar culture and language.
“We had no idea how to start a life,” Altayan said. “We didn’t know where to go to get food or get anything done.”
They stayed in the Hodiamont apartment for seven months. With the help of the Dar Al-Jalal Mosque in Hazelwood, the Altayans finally found a new house in North County.
Shortly after, Altayan heard about Jessica Bueler, the founder of Welcome Neighbor STL, a volunteer-based organization focusing on the needs of incoming refugees. Altayan reached out to Bueler asking for language lessons. Bueler and a number of volunteers taught Altayan how to speak English and how to drive.
Wanting to help her husband with expenses, Altayan thought back to the notebook, to the recipes she had watched be executed over and over until she had them memorized.
Maybe she could cook for a living.
She and Bueler organized a small catering event for 12 people as a test run. It was a major success and became what is now called the Supper Club.
In the past year and a half, the Club hosted 51 catering events for up to 150 customers, which 30 different women cook for and cater. All proceeds go to the women, all of them refugees like Altayan. Welcome Neighbor has 19 events scheduled as of now for the remainder of the year.
“There’s this amazing culture that’s just waiting to be shared with people,” Bueler said. “We’re trying to change some of the narrative of what people think about people from Syria or from the Middle East, because if you don’t know anybody from over there, all you have is your perception of what you’ve seen off of TV or even worse, Facebook. To actually meet someone, get to talk to them, get to know them, it reshapes the way people think about people from the Middle East.”
Altayan said she’s thankful for all the help the American people have offered her after all of the struggles her family endured. Settled into a secure livelihood, Altayan felt it was time to offer something back to the community that helped her stand on her feet.
“When you look at somebody and look into their eyes and see how hungry they are, or how much they need someone, when you treat people with dignity and respect and like a person, it changes you.”
Now, every other Sunday, Altayan wakes up at 5 a.m. to start making hot meals. Along with her husband, she prepares seasoned rice, chicken fajita, hummus and tabouleh.
The 23-year-old makes 40 meals of enough carbs, protein and vegetables for the hungry mouths of homeless St. Louisans who gather in front of Soldiers Memorial.
The cost for all ingredients Altayan uses is up to $125. The mother of three pays for these ingredients out of pocket. She said waking up early in the morning can be exhausting but the outcome is worth it.
“Before they eat, they look tired and down. You can see they’re hungry and it breaks my heart seeing them like that,” Altayan said. “But after they eat, it looks like their burden is lifted.”
The receiving hands of Michale Robinson and others are shy but thankful. Robinson has been on the streets for longer than he can remember. He’s been detoxing for almost a month now. Receiving Altayan's hot meal meant the world to him.
“I stumbled on this by the grace of God,” Robinson said. “You can taste labor and love in it, for sure.”
Robinson and many others said the meal they received from Altayan is their first meal of the day.
Altayan and Bueler organize with a local group called Street Kitchen. A handful of members meet them at the corner of 14th Street and Chestnut. The group prepares bags with utensils, snacks, juice and hand warmers to go with Altayan’s meals. On any given night, there are 1,336 homeless people in St. Louis City and 462 in St. Louis County, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
“I feel like it changes you a little bit,” Bueler said. “It’s a good idea to help people but when you look at somebody and look into their eyes and see how hungry they are, or how much they need someone, when you treat people with dignity and respect and like a person, it changes you.”
Bueler and Altayan’s goal is to forge a new path for community oneness, where the foreigner becomes family and those in need receive a helping hand.
“I feel like I’m offering something to life, something outside of just me,” Altayan said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The interview for this story was conducted in Arabic and translated by the author.