A South Jersey restaurateur felt a kinship with the Afghan evacuees arriving in Philadelphia, and he didn’t hesitate to step away from his thriving business when asked to help.
As the operation to relocate those who aided American forces got underway, Elias Bitar, chef and owner of Norma’s Mediterranean Restaurant in Cherry Hill, received a call from the Salvation Army about providing culturally-appropriate food.
“Being the son of two immigrants — my parents both came from war-torn Lebanon in the ’70s — I felt some sense of obligation to pay their reception to the United States back,” Bitar said.
“They were welcomed to this country, and that’s in every way shape and form why they were able to thrive and succeed,” he added.
More than a month later, Bitar is still making food for Afghan evacuees, but on a much larger scale, cooking thousands of meals on a regular basis thanks to a partnership with the hunger relief organization Philabundance.
He connected with the nonprofit through a friend who reached out after Bitar posted on social media saying he needed a bigger kitchen because the U.S. military wanted him to ramp up production.
There was a scramble to supply familiar meals to the Afghans, along with meat that meets Islamic law’s halal guidelines, Bitar said.
“This is the first impression that these people have of this country,” he said. “And so are they going to take from it that we didn’t give a crap and we gave them afterthought food that they may or may not like, and we don’t really care?”
“Or do we want them to come away from this experience, this terrifying experience, with something more along the lines of ‘America is a place that embraces my culture and I’m going to embrace as much of it as I can,’” he added.
A second round of evacuees from Afghanistan began arriving last week after a three-week delay due to a measles outbreak. Philadelphia is now the sole port of entry for those leaving the country.
Over the weekend, 665 Afghans landed at Philadelphia International Airport, and nine more flights were scheduled to come on Monday, according to the Mayor’s Office.
Some of Bitar and Philabundance’s meals go to the airport and others are taken to a processing center in Camden, he told Metro.
“It is a great big giant layover, and we all know that layovers suck” he said. “So we’re trying to make that layover, where there’s a lot of insecurity and there’s a lot of uncertainty, just a little bit more tolerable for them.”
Bitar’s mother started Norma’s, which has grown from a small sandwich shop to a full-service restaurant, market and catering business.
He has been tweaking his recipes to suit the evacuees’ taste (Afghan cuisine differs significantly from Lebanese food). Bitar said he has tried to fuse together flavors and make the meals that are also accessible for staff and volunteers.
Philabundance and Norma’s have about a dozen recipes in rotation, such as lamb stew and Moroccan chicken.
Food is prepared at the Philabundance Community Kitchen, a sparkling one-year-old facility in North Philadelphia that hosts job training and life skills programming.
Loree D. Jones, the organization’s CEO, said Philabundance immediately searched for ways to help arriving Afghans and is collaborating with resettlement agencies to provide long-term support.
“Let’s say it’s three months out and they need some other services,” Jones said. “Three months out and they may need food and so we’re looking at how we can provide services at that point too.”