Popaganda: Stovetop Social Justice

Hopefully, you can stand the HEAT of this season of Popaganda—because this week, host Carmen Rios is taking you into the kitchen, where refugee chefs and their neighbors are breaking bread and building community.

The Los Angeles-based organization Miry’s List has been supporting thousands of individuals and hundreds of families resettling as refugees in the United States since 2016. But more recently, Miry Whitehill began serving up social change by making space for shared meals through the New Arrival Supper Club series. Working with a standing committee of refugee chefs served by the Miry’s List community, her team puts together pop-up food experiences that offer people opportunities to meet the resettling families in their neighborhoods—and creates a critical revenue stream for folks forging a new future in the United States.

In this episode of Popaganda, Carmen talks to Miry and her right-hand woman for the Supper Club series, Christy Anderson, about what it took to build the program and how it’s advancing the organization’s mission. She also sits down with refugee chef Maaysa Kanjo, who prepares a very incredible hummus, and KCRW Good Food host Evan Kleiman, who shares her own personal supper club story.

Carmen’s piled-high plates don’t lie: She’s a fan of the food that defines these events, and of the emotional catharsis that comes from being in the room with newly arrived families and the community members that stand with them. But in exploring the Supper Club’s roots and imagining it’s future, she comes to realize just how powerful the mission of being a good neighbor really is—and how delicious love in action can be.

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Photo via Christina Gandolfo/Miry’s List

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[FULL TRANSCRIPT]
 
CARMEN RIOS: Did you know that your phone can be a powerful force for change? With CREDO Mobile, it can. Because credo stands for women’s rights, the environment, and more, and donates $150,000 every month to groups like the ACLU and Planned Parenthood. Switch now, and you’ll also get a year of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream on us. Learn more at credo.com/bitch. That’s credo.com/bitch.
 
[theme music]
 
Hi! Carmen Rios here, feminist digital media superstar and the host of Bitch’s Popaganda podcast. Our HEAT season covered a lot of ground this summer: We spiced up our lives, we smashed patriarchy while smoking up, and we even took a break when we burned out. Today, we’re jumping out of the fire and into the frying pan. Because today, I’m taking you with me to a feminist supper club for a taste of some stovetop social justice.
 
[mellow music plays while Carmen talks]
 
Let me set the scene: It’s June in Los Angeles. The sun is setting. We’re on the rooftop patio at the Jane Club, the mother of all member clubs. We’re surrounded by dozens of activists, advocates, and foodies who are passionate devotees of Miry’s List, a local nonprofit that provides community-based support to resettling refugee families. And we’re here because we’re celebrating World Refugee Day with the organization’s dedicated team and some of its all-star supporters. There’s a bowl of spiked punch lying in wait on one table and platters of thick cheese, unpeeled lychee, and shelled pistachios on the others, alongside spices in small, custom-packed plastic bags obviously begging to be picked up and put in my purse.
 
Downstairs, Katie Kildow—who owns the local restaurant The Mermaid and helped launch the Miry’s List’s supper club program—is overseeing an open bar featuring on-brand booze drinks made possible by brands like Immigrant Mezcal and featuring, much to my own liking, a lot of fruity flavor. They’re not quite ready for us down there yet, but that’s where the magic will eventually happen. Because that’s where Maaysa Kanjo and her family will cover the tables out by the wading pool with trays of freshly-prepared Syrian food that’s right now lying in wait just ten feet away, in the kitchen of the Club.
 
[recording of people cooking, chatting together, laughing in the kitchen where this interview also takes place]
 
MAAYSA KANJO’S TRANSLATOR: I’m so excited and happy for today.
 
MAAYSA: I’m really happy.
 
TRANSLATOR: And to be here.
 
MAAYSA: I make food today, very delicious. [Laughs.] And I’m sure. [in Syrian] fatayer.
 
TRANSLATOR: Fatayer with cheese and rice and chicken and salad.
 
MAAYSA: And the baba ganouj two kind.
 
TRANSLATOR: And hummus.
 
MAAYSA: And the hummus, yes.
 
CARMEN: And sort of why did you pick those items? What do they mean to you? What do you hope people take away from this spread?
 
MAAYSA: [Speaks in Syrian] and the dessert.
 
TRANSLATOR: Because most people like this food, and before when we make it, and everybody like it. So, like there’s nobody will say I don’t like that kind of the food.
 
CARMEN: Nobody would know what people like to eat better than the Kanjos, in all fairness. Before they left Syria and declared refugee status, Maaysa’s husband, Abdul, was running a bakery that had been in his family for over a century. Here in sunny Southern California, they’ve extended and expanded that tradition by making themselves into regular fixtures at Miry’s List events like these: supper clubs that are part consciousness-raising, part community-building, and, by way of a series of sumptuous courses, a crash-course in the cultures and customs that tie families around the world together.
 
MIRY WHITEHILL: I met the Kanjos through Claremont Canopy, a nonprofit organization based in Claremont that works with families resettling there. And the founder of that organization, Christie Anderson, who is also our director of the supper club, she originally introduced us to the Kanjos because she had been to their house to eat. And she said this food is, “You ain’t never had food like this before.” And you know, honestly, I believed her without even trying the food. And we had—
 
CARMEN: [Laughs.] That’s Miry Whitehill, as in, the Miry of Miry’s List, the organization that has turned breaking bread into an act of solidarity-building in Los Angeles.
 
CHRISTY ANDERSON: So, basically, I had a family out in Claremont that had been doing some side cooking off and on, and then someone sent me a message with the link to, I think it was the LA magazine article on Supper Club. And I thought, oh my gosh, what an amazing concept. I love this. So I sent Katie Kildow, the founder of Supper Club, a Facebook message. And she immediately called me and was like, “Hey, what’s up?” And I’m like, oh my gosh, this is amazing. We have a family out here. I’d love to partner. And this was like, I think probably they were maybe one or two events in. It was really in the beginning. and I said, “Hey, we have this family.” She said, “Hey, we have this couple that wants a refugee family to cook for their wedding.” And I said, “Great! I’m sure that the Kanjos would be up for that.” They laugh now at me, the Kanjos.
 
CARMEN: [Laughs.]
 
CHRISTY: Because at that point, I had never even tasted their food. And they’re like, “You booked us for a wedding?”
 
CARMEN: [Laughs.]
 
CHRISTY: I was like, well. So, they met with the couple, and we got hooked up with Supper Club. And they met with the couple, and they catered their entire wedding in the mountains where there was no cell coverage. So, the Kanjos packed up all the food, and there they went. And it was beautiful and amazing. And that sort of started the relationship with Supper Club.
 
CARMEN: Awesome.
 
CHRISTY: That family’s now one of the main three chef families that cooks for them.
 
CARMEN: And that’s Christy Anderson who runs the Supper Club program for Miry’s List and also runs Claremont Canopy, a similar, mission-based organization in California’s Inland Empire.
 
I sat down with Miry and Christy separately at The Wing a few weeks after the World Refugee Day Awards mostly—because I needed time to finish digesting all of the food I ate at the World Refugee Day Awards—to learn more about the Supper Club series taking my city by storm and to connect the dots between the broader picture of refugee resettlement and the impact one shared meal can have on an entire neighborhood.
 
CARMEN: Okay. So, how does it start? What is the first meal that you would say inspired you to start the Supper Club?
 
MIRY: Well, that had to be the first time I had dinner with the first Miry’s List family back in July 2016. And we didn’t have dinner together the first time we met. We had dinner together maybe the second or third visit, but I was there with my kids. And at the time, my youngest was five months old, and my oldest was about two and a half. So, I did a lot of cooking and in my day-to-day life. Except for Shabbat at my parents, it was very rare for someone else to prepare a meal for me. And I just found myself sitting at this table with a family who I barely knew, and we didn’t even speak a language together. But I just felt so like I was sitting at the table with my family. And I continued to feeling that way and I still do. And I now feel like that a lot more because I know a whole lot more families who have been so kind to invite me into their homes for meals. But I didn’t think about a supper club at that moment. But what was happening was I was bonding with this family. And so, that was really the initial seeds that were planted where I was recognizing, through my own experience, the power of sitting down at a table and sharing a meal with someone.
 
CARMEN: Let’s rewind for a minute to that meal in 2016 and the first Miry’s List family. Because to understand the Supper Club’s absolutely magical power, you have to understand Miry and the magnitude of her mission.
 
Miry founded the List in 2016, after she went to the house of a nearby resettling family with a jumper in her arms, and she was invited inside. What she found there was, well, a lot of empty space and a void in resettling families’ stories where extended families and communities should’ve been. Move to action: she called a friend to act as a translator and urged the family to tell her what they needed. She went home and posted the list of requested items to Facebook, and donations began arriving at her door overnight. Within two weeks, Miry had fulfilled every single want and need on that family’s list.
 
The nonprofit she didn’t realize she was starting with that Facebook post has since served 320 families and offers much more efficient ordering and shipping mechanisms, as well as more programming and concrete community resources to the families that they serve. In the three years since that fateful visit, Miry’s List has provided this kind of support to 1,800 individuals resettling from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran.
 
The Supper Club series is a natural extension of the Miry’s List mission, not just for the organization’s supporters hungry to do more, but for the families served by it’s team every day.
 
MIRY: So, wish list was our flagship program, and it’s kind of what we’re known for. It’s the list in Miry’s List. But basically, it is a platform of baby registry or wedding registry type lists for families to fill their home with the things that they need, their first home in America. And the experience for someone to go onto a family’s wish list, I think it’s five clicks from our Homepage to complete a purchase, actually. But just reading their bio and then looking at their list of the things that they need: They need size two diapers, they need socks for a 2-year-old, they need a bike for a 5-year-old. You’re really able to connect with a family and a really tangible way. That’s the same thing when you come to dinner at one of our supper clubs, and you’re sitting there and you’re learning about a hummus recipe from a woman who learned it from her mom. And you’re thinking about the things that you learned in your mom’s kitchen. And we’re able to connect with people through the things we have in common, and it gives us perspective.
 
And so, from a wish list program perspective, when somebody purchases the smallest item, like a pair of baby socks, 99 cents on Amazon Prime, two-day delivery, free shipping, that is like the gateway drug to Miry’s List. Once you have that experience of you actually write a message to the family, they’re gonna see your words and you can say, “Welcome to America. Congratulations on the new baby. I’m so glad you’re here.” Like that is so simple and enjoyable and practical, and it brings people in. And what we see is once somebody has made one purchase off of one of our family wish lists, it makes them much more likely to come back and buy more for other family wish lists. And it also makes them more likely to show up at one of our events. And the same is true when you come to one of our events and you meet one of our families and you try the food, it makes you much more likely to donate to Miry’s List to volunteer and to go shopping on our wish lists.
 
The goal for the event is that everybody that comes into the room will learn about the refugee resettlement system in America. They will learn about how it feels to resettle as a refugee in America. And lastly, how you can help families who are coming here. And that’s our goal.
 
Once you’re in, that’s what we want you to leave with. And what that leads to ultimately is participating in Miry’s List, and everybody has something to give.
 
CARMEN: How do you feel like food fits into this work that you’re doing to sort of support resettling families and provide them with community and connection?
 
MIRY: So, there are three pillars of our program: It’s survive, hive, and thrive. And we’ve designed that based on the experience that families have when they come to America to resettle as refugees. And most of the families that arrive here are in survival mode, and that’s not something that anybody needs to, you don’t have to be a refugee or have ever been a refugee to understand what that would feel like. But really at that time, what they need is to feel safe, to be able to rest, and do whatever they need to do to feel normal and relaxed. And food takes a role in the entire survive, hive, thrive platform. You know, food, we need it to survive. We can’t live without it.
 
Hive is when, you know, imagine a beehive. We’re surrounding the family with the things, the people, and the services that they need to feel safe. And food is like that too. Food makes us feel comforted. Food is our family’s history. Food is that feeling that you get when you’re being taken care of by someone who really loves you. A lot of people, food is their love language.
 
And thrive, the third phase of our program where we want all of our families to end up where they have a sense of wellbeing and they know that they’re supported by their community and they feel like they have the ability to give back and help someone else, that is like, what could be more relevant to inviting someone over and having them at your table? And it’s this chance, you know, as far as thrive, when a family, when a resettling family, is preparing a meal for a group of American people that want to welcome them, they’re showing off their skills. They are able to share their culture in a way that’s so unique to them with skills and practice and years of just trial and error. And there’s so much pride that comes through that. And that’s what thriving is all about: Having a sense of wellbeing and then giving back to your community.
 
CARMEN: Christy recognized the power of the Super Club series immediately, and she still feels its impact each time she sits down for a shared meal.
 
CHRISTY: Each event that we have, there’s always like this ripple effect. We’ll go in, we’ll host an event, everyone feels the social impact and then there is a surge of donations. We get a lot of people that are attendees of the event that then message me and say, “Oh my gosh, I wanna do this too. How can I host an event?” One of the employees at Participant Media just contacted me wanting to see if we could possibly do her rehearsal dinner, privately for her wedding. So, I think that there’s just, the events are so impactful, especially when our families share their story.  We always notice this burst of engagement from the attendees after each event.
 
CARMEN: She also recognizes the power of a food-fueled experience to further connect resettling families with their new neighbors, to bridge gaps of experience, and to cross barriers of language.
 
CHRISTY: To be the good cook and to share a meal with a neighbor, that requires no language; it requires no education. It requires just that you can cook a meal and share it. And there’s nothing more personal than saying, “I made this food for you, and I want to share it with you.” And so, at all of our events, I think that’s sort of the passion behind that. And seeing the families come and that they’ve provided you a meal, it’s such amazing community, and it makes you feel very connected. You feel suddenly super-connected to this family, and the family feels super-connected to the people they provided food for. And there was no words spoken.
 
And I think that that motivates the community that we go into. Whether it’s corporations, private parties, or popups, those people that experience us coming in and providing them this social-impact experience that’s surrounded around food makes them want to give back and help our organization and allow us to help in the other ways that we help, whether that’s Amazon wish lists or getting the things they need to start other businesses or things like that. So, I think it really fosters a lot of support for the organization as a whole because there’s nothing— And let’s face it: Their food’s amazing.
 
CARMEN: [Laughs.]
 
CHRISTY: Middle Eastern food is amazing. So, I joke with them that they’ve ruined store-bought hummus for me forever. ’Cause now I go to Trader Joe’s, and I’m like, mm. It’s not Maaysa’s hummus.
 
I think just in general, Supper Clubs events, even just when I’m interacting with our families or I go over— You know, a lot of our families live that I serve with Claremont Canopy, my organization, they live really close to me. Their kids go to my kids’ schools, and my kids have classes with them. And the Kanjo family that does the cooking, he used to be a barber in Syria. That was his profession. And so, he cuts all my kids’ hair every two weeks. I go over there, we have coffee, he cuts the kids’ hair, and we chat. So, I think with all of these events, there’s a feeling of family, which our resettled families really need and want because they’ve left most of their family to come here.
 
CARMEN: Yeah.
 
CHRISTY: And I think for the community that supports us, it’s just a feeling of peace and a feeling of hope that we may have differences, we may have religious differences, we may have a completely different story, but we can all still come together, share food, share laughter, learn about what it was like to come to America as a refugee. And I think especially at this time in our country where the rhetoric around immigration is not positive and there’s a general feeling of promoting hate and not accepting your neighbor, I feel like Miry and I are really on the frontlines of trying to counteract hate and counteract the rhetoric. Because that’s not the reality. The reality is, is what happens at these supper clubs where people come together to support our newest neighbors.
 
CARMEN: What happens at these supper clubs is pure magic. Tables spill over with food, and laughter fills the room. New friendships are forged, and sisters-in-arms raise glasses to one another. Resettling families share stories, and strangers share food out of big bowls and pass baskets holding stacks of naan.
 
I feel like when you’re at one of these events, you’re in a very opposite frame of mind from the way that these families might be operating when you first meet them, right?
 
CHRISTY: Mmhmm, mmhmm.
 
CARMEN: Like they’re definitely operating out of scarcity. They don’t have a lot.
 
CHRISTY: Right, yep.
 
CARMEN: Then they’re given this opportunity to really abundantly share of themselves with their community that wants to help them. What sort of unique power do you think food has in this equation? I mean obviously, it’s a supper club, so the unique power of food is that without it, the event would not exist. But why food? What do you think it is about that sharing of a meal?
 
CHRISTY: I think food truly…. You know, one of the taglines that we use is, “Food is love in action.”
 
CARMEN: Mm!
 
CHRISTY: And it is a way for you to have empathy. It’s a way for you to feel…. Our families have a lot of pride in their food. In that culture in general is, there’s pride in being a good cook and providing food. Which, most cultures. So, there’s some dignity and pride that I came from nothing. And when I arrived in America, maybe I didn’t have all the things I needed, but now I’m providing for this community. And there’s something really empowering about that, and there’s also something very empowering and touching your heart to feed someone else, you know?
 
Actually, the Kanjos, through a connection they have, I think with the mosque, this was maybe like six months ago, they prepared enough for about 200 people. And they went with the folks from their mosque to skid row and fed the homeless of Los Angeles one of their authentic Syrian meals. So, it’s the power of feeling like you’re providing for someone and the connection of food and it being sort of love in action, I think it’s really an ingenious idea. Because if you provide food for someone, you feel good about it. You feel good you’re taking care of that person. If that person eats and, “Oh my gosh, this is amazing,” then you feel pride. And none of that requires language.
 
There was an interview I did with Maaysa, and I said something like, “Hummus for world peace.”

CARMEN: [Laughs.]

CHRISTY: You can’t eat that hummus and be mad, you know?!

CARMEN: Yes! And I just also feel like there’s that aspect too, of food being love in action, of this idea of this means a lot to me. And it’s sort of a cultural education for sure. But it’s also sort of that, you have a relationship with someone, right? Like when they cook something for you that is important to them or to their family, it’s like you are now part of their family or part of that dialogue that’s filled with food.

CHRISTY: Yeah. And it really, like the families that I work with at Supper Club, it truly has bonded us. Like my [chuckles] silly story, my dog was in the hospital ’cause he got diabetes.  Which the concept of a hospital for pets is new to our Middle Eastern families.

BOTH: [Laugh.]

CHRISTY: It’s like yes, I understand. But even though that seems a little extravagant and odd, I love my dog. And they all were like, “Oh Christy, how’s your dog?” They were checking, Bashir from Afghanistan was checking in with me every day, like, “How is the dog? We’re praying for the dog.”

CARMEN: Aw.

CHRISTY: You know, it’s something, like we’re totally family now. When my son got his appendix out, families were visiting us in the hospital. So, it’s the food and the planning the meals, just planning the meals has bonded me with these people, with our families, for the rest of my life for sure. You know, the Kanjos have met my sister and made food to give to my parents when they were visiting. And so, it really, it’s such a bonding thing, and it has the power of changing lives.

CARMEN: I can vouch: I’ve been to two Supper Club events now, and they were both not only delicious, but deeply emotionally nourishing. They didn’t just help me relax and refuel. They gave me a burst of energy that made me wanna step up and make a difference. They made me wanna be a better neighbor. And rumor has it that I’m not the only one.

MIRY: The third Supper Club, it was a backyard family-friendly lunch, a Syrian lunch in my co-founder of the Supper Club, Kildow’s backyard. And I remember I had my baby in my arms, and I hear the most familiar voice. And she goes, “Excuse me, Miry.” And I know who it is before I even turn around because it’s Evan Kleiman!

CARMEN: [Chuckles.]

MIRY: And I’ve heard her 100,000 times on the radio, and I’m such a huge fan! And I had never seen a picture of her. But I turned around, and I go, “Are you Evan Kleiman From KCRW Good Food?” And I fangirled so hard. And she said, “I have to tell you something. I go on your lists when I feel really bad about the world—when my outlook, and I’m just feeling hopeless—I go on your lists.” And I’m by the way, standing there with my mouth open. I’m like, I cannot believe I’m talking to Evan Kleiman. And she says, “I find families that list things like professional-grade meat grinders and Cuisinarts and food processors, and I buy those things for them. Because when I see something like that on someone’s list, it tells me that they are a serious cook and that they need that to be able to make their food. And I’m thinking about how I can help them do that. And it gives me hope. It brings me back.” And I’m like so floored to be meeting this person, and I just said, “Thank you so much, Evan Kleiman of KCRW!”

BOTH: [Laugh.]

[theme music]

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It just so happens that I also met chef and journalist Evan Kleiman, of Southern California NPR station KCRW’s Good Food at a Miry’s List Supper Club event. In fact, I met her on World Refugee Day. And then, as one does, I invited her to come out to West Hollywood and talk to me about the purposeful and pivotal design of Miry’s program.

CARMEN: How does it come that you get involved with Miry’s List and with the Supper Club?

EVAN KLEIMAN: I…I don’t really remember. It must’ve been that I saw the list. And Miry probably remembers better than I do, but I became aware of the list. Oh no, that’s not it. I saw on Facebook, I must’ve seen on Facebook, that there was an event happening in somebody’s backyard and that it was for new arrivals. And I usually am kind of shy, which might be surprising to some people.

CARMEN: [Laughs.]

EVAN: And I don’t tend to do a lot of these kinds of things where I know nobody where I’m going to be going. But it had occurred to me that in this new world of harder immigration situations for Latinos that restaurateurs would need to reach out to other groups to try and find workers. Because there’s already such a chef shortage right here in Los Angeles. And it occurred to me that refugees have passports. They have legalized status. So, I gave the heads up to a couple colleagues of mine, and I said, “Why don’t we go to this event and just check it out and see what it’s about?” And so, we ended up in the backyard of one of Miry’s friends, and it was super homey and humble. And the food that was featured, it was sort of like picnic style. The food that was featured was from newly-arrived folks, and it was delicious. And we just sat down at tables and just start talking to folks, talking to some young people that were there. And my friends ended up hiring someone that they met at that event, and I think he still works for them part-time off and on. This is a couple years ago now. And then I got into conversation with Miry, and of course, Miry is one of the most galvanizing, charismatic people.

CARMEN: [Laughs.]

EVAN: So, then I became intrigued about the lists. And if you’re me and you go on the list, that of course, what you immediately do is you scroll down to kitchen. What do people need to set up a home for kitchens? And when you start looking at the list, you realize, I mean you already know before you go on the list, a lot of these people have very little, sometimes nothing, when they’re setting up the house. But when you’re looking at the list of what they’re asking for—plates, glasses, silverware, cookware—then you become really, really aware. And so, I sort of just started every week, if I had a little bit of extra money, going on and sort of going on a shopping spree for somebody else. And it felt really good to be able to do something so direct.

CARMEN: Yeah. Well, and I mean you’re a food journalist, so food is obviously something you love. And what do you feel the power of food and building this kitchen for our folks and helping them sort of build up that part of their home, what do you feel the unique power is there?

EVAN: Well, I mean I come at this less as a journalist than just as a person for whom food has been the main driver in my life. I mean before it was even a profession, it was the way I interacted with people. I would, being a shy young person, I didn’t like sitting at the table and having to be in conversation with people. So, I would just cook. And so, cooking, I could be on the edges. I could serve people and interact with people how I wanted without having to sit there and make conversation. Which is hilarious given what I do for a living now.

But I mean the kitchen is the heart of the home. I mean everybody knows that. It doesn’t matter how big your house is. If your kitchen is like a postage stamp and you have friends over, everybody ends up in that postage stamp by the end of the night!

CARMEN: [Laughs.]

EVAN: And if you go on these lists and you see yes, they need all the kitchenware, they also need bedding. They need pillows. They need blankets. For me, as a person who just can’t go on the list and click everything, which I wish I could do, that I aspire to do one day, I had to focus. So, for me, focusing on helping people, primarily the woman of the house, be able to go in the kitchen and make food that is familiar for her family, you know, we all know that when you’re in a place that is new and scary and different, eating—and even more important sometimes I feel like smelling the aromas—of home is very grounding.

And what I think is great about the events that Miry’s List does, these Supper Clubs, is that it’s a way for those of us in the community who are interested in food and interested in the larger world and are perhaps having a lot of anxiety right now given the overarching political moment, this is something that is very real, that you can do where you live, that makes you feel like you’ve done something yes, small but important. I mean, a lot of the families who cook are cooks. I mean they came over from whatever country they’ve come from, and they had a bakery or they had a catering company or they had an informal catering situation where they cooked for clients in their neighborhood. And so, they come over with skills, and we need those kind of skills. And why wouldn’t we wanna share and learn about their food?

CARMEN: What are some of the food highlights that you remember from these events? I mean, I still think about the World Refugee Day food. I’m still just everyday like, oh my god. That was so good.

EVAN: I mean, and also it’s a moment where, you know, Middle Eastern restaurants are popping up all over the place. And so, fatte, I love fatte, the dish with yogurt and pita, it’s just, and garbanzo beans, so delicious. I mean for me, I just love the experience of tasting somebody else’s hand work and all the different kinds of kibbeh and all the different kinds of like we would say hand pies, but not, different kinds of things folded in dough and then either baked or fried. I mean it’s just another example of you think you know food, but then you taste somebody else’s food, and you realize, oh, there’s more to learn. Because you know, all of us, all families have like 5 to 10 things in rotation. [Chuckles.] And I just love learning what those five to 10 things are in other families.

CARMEN: [Laughs.]

EVAN: So, it’s always delicious. People are so open and willing to share what the dishes are. And I remember once with Abeer, I was like, oh my gosh. This fatte’s incredible. I wanna learn how to make it. So, she invited me over to her house, and we had this lesson that was just so much fun and wonderful. And it was just great hanging out with her.

CARMEN: Yeah, oh, that’s really incredible. Well, and there’s a part of me too that wonders— I mean obviously, I feel like in this aspect of the Supper Club that food becomes sort of a cultural ambassador, right, that allows people to sort of understand each other better. But do you also feel, having experienced a lot of the food that LA has to offer, that maybe there’s also a degree to which it’s more like, would you say it’s more authentic than when it’s a restaurant that is in place, and they have to serve a certain—

EVAN: I don’t like the word “authentic” because I just think authenticness is really what’s happening in your house.

CARMEN: Mm.

EVAN: And in so many of these cultures, they think what’s happening in their house is authentic, but three doors down, it’s not authentic.

CARMEN: [Laughs.]

EVAN: So, that’s not a good road to go down. No, I think it’s more, I think it’s much more grounded. The thing I love the best about it is there are people who need to become integrated into our communities. In our capitalist society, often the way to do that is through a money exchange for a service. And then that leads to a deeper interaction, which then leads to colleagueship or friendship. And I just think that if you’re gonna buy food from somebody, and you can buy from X super established, already very successful, doing well, have friends in community, or Y recently arrived, incredible cooking chops, need to make money to build their center here in the city, I mean, just do it. It’s such an easy, it’s such low-hanging fruit. And especially at a time when you read the newspaper and you feel so powerless, this is something so small, but it’s real.

CARMEN: Yeah. Do you think it’s making that dent? Do you feel like you see—

EVAN: Oh yeah, definitely. Yes, because of course it does. Every time one of these families gets another gig where they’re doing another job, it gives them more financial stability and gives them more pride and more understanding too that there is a part of the United States that is welcoming.

CARMEN: Mm.

EVAN: Which I think now is a good story to tell.

CARMEN: The DNA of the Supper Club is that it isn’t about food. It’s about serving a higher mission and lifting up every single person who’s involved in the process. It’s about expanding opportunity and increasing connection. It’s about social change that can be dished out in a way that reminds resettling families that they have the support of their neighbors and leaves Miry’s List supporters wanting to heap even more of their own time, energy, and resources onto the organization’s plate.

CHRISTY: Yeah, it’s no day is the same. There’s a lot that goes into it. Usually when people will approach, they approach Miry and I first like a corporation or a private party. And then we sort of negotiate when and the time, and we fill them in on pricing. Our model, it’s not like a catering model. It’s a social impact experience model. So, in the pricing, there’s pricing to pay the chef family. It also includes a part of that that goes back to Miry’s list to help us enroll new families, which is about five a week at this point. Then there’s a fee for Supper Club and our coordination and then a fiscal sponsor fee. So, there’s quite a bit that goes into the per-person rate, and we sort of knock that out with them.

And then once we have that all nailed down, then we see which family’s available, which family’s a good fit for the client, the venue. And then with the power of WhatsApp and a translator— So, I have an Arabic-speaking, he’s actually a graduate student in Claremont. He’s on these group chats with me. And so, I’ll basically be able to say like, “Hey, we have an event coming up September 14th, this many people. Here it is, Can you do it?” And then he translates that all into Arabic, and then he acts as our middle guy. And then we have to plan the menu, and that’s gotten fairly streamlined now. I mean, now I’m pretty much an expert in Middle Eastern and Afghani food, so. [Laughs.] And we have menus that we’ve used before, so we can just say like, “Hey, what about let’s use the menu that we used this date?” And so, it’s a lot. Sometimes I’ll meet with them in person if it’s a more complicated event, but we do a lot over WhatsApp. So, yeah, that’s kind of how it runs.

CARMEN: Awesome! Well, and you sort of talked about social impact experience versus a catering model. What’s that guiding vision of a social impact experience? You know, you’re like, these are the things I know I want to get done with every single event.

CHRISTY: Mmhmm. Well, I think, you know what Miry and I tell folks is, we’re not running a catering business. That’s not at all, that’s not part of the mission. The mission is, like we’ve said, is to unify and come together as a community to welcome our new neighbors as we share a meal. And Miry comes in and usually speaks at the events. Often our families will speak, especially Basheer from Afghanistan who is fluent in English and can really tell his story, which is extremely powerful. So, it really is this package of we’re going to provide you with this experience that not only you get a meal, you’re creating an impact because you’re allowing this family to have a salary. You’re supporting Miry’s List by supporting her organization that welcomes five new families a week.

MIRY: I mean just far as fundraising goes, we have identified that Los Angeles is the appropriate market for a social impact food experience. And that is now how I think of the Supper Club, as before I thought about it as a way for families to meet some new people and make some money. Now I think about it as an experience that can actually bring people together and is bringing people together on a massive scale. And then fast forward two years, we’ve now sold out over 50 events. And so, I know that people really want to experience this, and that’s been really impactful. And we’re also able to see, just from a reporting perspective, the wages that we’ve paid out to resettling chefs in the last two years, I think it’s close to a $100,000 now. And that is just amazing!

CARMEN: The impacts of these events are way more tangible, concrete, and important than my emotional catharsis. They’re fueling a movement and engaging even more people in the critical work Miry’s List does. In fact, the best indicators of the Supper Club success are the stories of its primary beneficiaries: the families cooking the food that define these experiences.

MIRY: I mean number one, it is a source of income. We have the entire financing structure of our Supper Club is designed to make sure that the family is going to be able to earn enough to actually move the needle for them. And actually what we look for, especially with private event partners like Participant Media, is that we look for continuing events. So, it’s not a one off; it’s a series. And so, we do both. We do both styles. And for our families to be able to have ongoing income, it means that moms are able to enroll in college, and they know that their rent is going to be paid. And having that consistent income is very helpful. So, just on a financial level, it’s very helpful.

But then there is the element of coming into a room where people really wanna welcome you, and you are the star. And a lot of times at our events, we have the chef or a member of the chef’s families speak about their family’s experience, to talk about the food. It’s just, there’s something really amazing about picking the brain of a really experienced chef who has a completely different cultural background. I think it really excites people, and then that excitement is really fulfilling to our families who, they’re coming through a migration experience. And migration experiences are unique, but they all have something in common where you become, you’re a number. You have to stand in line. You have to wait. You often don’t know how long the current phase you’re in will last and when the next phase will begin.

We hear stories of families who got on the plane. They hear they’re gonna be resettled in America. They get on a plane. They think they’re going to Michigan, and then they get off the plane, and they’re in California! And literally not having any kind of knowledge of what’s to come, what will be, not having consent about your life, not being able to make decisions, it can be dehumanizing. And I don’t use that word lightly. And this experience of coming into a room and showing off your family history and culture and meeting so many American people that wanna welcome you, it is healing, and it can be transformative.

We just added on a new element, literally in the last two weeks. We started offering coaching with a public speaking coach to all of our chefs. And building the confidence and the ability to speak and capture an entire room with who you are and your experience, it directly counteracts a dehumanizing migration experience.

CARMEN: The Supper Club, for example, gave the Kanjos a new sense of community here in Southern California as well as opportunities to see the loved ones they were missing from back home.

CHRISTY: So, yeah. So, I connected with that family, honestly because of the Supper Club.

CARMEN: [Laughs.]

CHRISTY: They, at that point, they were working with a local church was sort of helping them in the initial phases of resettlement, but I had heard that they had made food. And so, it was because of Supper Club that sort of our relationship started. Their story is very similar to a lot of the families. They are from Homs, Syria, and their house, they tried to stay as long as they could because Abdul owned the salon. Abdul’s one of 17. He has 10 brothers and seven sisters. So, they have a huge family that they wanted to really stay with. But then one night, their house was hit by a tanker, and they just realized it’s unsafe. So, I think about 30 of them, of the Kanjo line—cousins, uncles, whatever—fled to Damascus, which is the capital. And they sort of roamed a little bit there and then again, just realized this isn’t working. This is unsafe. And from there, they went to the border and then waited and then fled across the border to Jordan where they declared themselves refugees with UNHCR. Which that’s a tough choice. Families have to come to that point of saying, all right, I’m declaring refugee status.

I think that that’s one thing people don’t understand is like, it’s a hard choice to say I’m leaving my country, I’m declaring myself as a refugee, and I don’t know where I’ll end up. It’s very anxiety-provoking and obviously. So, they were in Jordan for four years going through the process of interviews and fingerprinting. The refugee population is the most-vetted population that comes into our country. They finished that process. And then in 2016 in the summer, they came to southern California. And they’ve been here ever since.

And one of our biggest success stories was with Maaysa and Abdul Kanjo. So, they have been doing this monthly event now for two years, and they’ve also been getting sort of side events on their own in the Claremont area, in the Arabic community that they’re part of and whatnot. So, they’ve become really skilled at being able to produce food for large quantities of people. They have five kids. Only four of them are in the United States. Their oldest daughter, when they fled Syria, she was already married. So, when they fled to Jordan, when they left Syria, she went to Saudi Arabia with her new husband. That was seven years ago, and that was the last time they saw her. They’re still in contact, but because of the travel ban, she can’t visit here ’cause of her Syrian passport. So, ever since I’ve met them, they talk about Huda a lot. “We need to see her. We need to see her. It’s been so long. It’s been so long.” She’s since had three kids that they had not met. And I mean with the power of FaceTime and WhatsApp, it helps, but obviously it’s not like holding your grandbaby.

So, they’ve been working really hard with Supper Club. And I didn’t even know this, but they had been saving some of the money that they had been making. And then in this past April, they got a 30-day visa, a pilgrimage visa through the mosque, and they were able to purchase tickets to Saudi Arabia, the two of them and their youngest son. And they flew back and were reunited with her and met their grandkids. And that was from the profits they had made on Supper Club.  And they sent us a video of the reunion, and it was just like, I was just balling. It was just—

CARMEN: Yeah, that’s so amazing.

CHRISTY: And so, that was a direct, tangible like, oh my gosh. They got to be reunited with their daughter because of what has happened at Supper Club. And that is exactly the mission, is to make it so that this lifts these families out of just surviving here. And the Kanjos are so grateful, and their daughter who was in Saudi Arabia was messaging me like, “Oh my gosh, thank you. Thank you. Thank you. They wouldn’t have been able to come had they not made this money.” And so, I mean that is a huge example of the power of this model and the power of Supper Club.

CARMEN: Supper Clubs aren’t just popping up in Los Angeles. Refugees, asylum seekers, and other migrant families are sharing meals with new neighbors in cities like Atlanta, St. Louis, New York, and Boston. And organizations like the United Tastes of America are even serving up support for these families across the country. But Miry and Christy’s model has already made a uniquely massive impact on the city that their families now call home.

MIRY: We learned really quickly that Los Angeles was going to be the ideal market to launch something like the New Arrival Supper Club just based on ticket sales. The first event sold out in, I think, three hours. And the tickets were, I think, $75 each. And we were blown away. And we also have continued to see that level of sellout for all of our events. And it was about a year into doing these dinners that we had the idea of expanding on the dinner experience specifically here in Los Angeles and developing a program that could make it really easy for anyone in any neighborhood in Los Angeles to get involved with our families. And from that our program, Welcome Neighbor, was born. And we applied for LA 2050. It’s a $200,000 grant for ideas that make Los Angeles a better place to eat, work, live, play, or create or connect. And we applied in the connect category, and we won. It was an open vote.

And so, winning LA 2050 turned the lights on for Welcome Neighbor. We got started immediately. That program launched in January of this year, January, 2019. And since then, through Supper Clubs and trainings and workshops and neighborhood council events and adopting resolutions, we have already activated over 70,000 Angelenos specifically around the Welcome Neighbor concept to make Los Angeles a more welcoming city. Ultimately, we would like Welcome Neighbor to become a framework that any city could adopt to become more welcoming for the families resettling there.

CARMEN: Yeah. And what does that framework look like?

MIRY: So, there’s four steps. The first step is learning about the experience. And so, that is through attending one of our events or trainings, just learning about what it’s like to resettle in America. We have, in L.A., we’re really lucky to have a neighborhood council system that is funded by our City Council. There are neighborhood councils in over 100 neighborhoods in Los Angeles. And so, we partnered with the neighborhood council system. Empower LA is the name of the department in City Hall. And we have so far have had 14 neighborhood councils enroll in this program. Our goal was 10, by the way. And so, we’ve exceeded that goal. And so, we’re offering the opportunity on a city-wide scale of learning about the experience. We also have a resolution that neighborhoods are adopting called the Welcome Neighbor Resolution that basically declares the neighborhood a safe and welcoming place for all. That’s available on our website at Miryslist.org/welcomeneighbor.

And the next step is participating in activations and appointing a welcoming liaison. And so, we already have something like 22 welcoming liaisons set up across all of these councils across the city. And they’re participating in activations, which are ways of getting their stakeholders, their neighbors actively involved in welcoming resettling families.

CARMEN: It helps, of course, that Angelenos are so clearly craving the kind of social justice Miry’s List is serving up.

CARMEN: Is there a reason you think that that might be? Is there a reason people in L.A. are, for lack of a better term, maybe hungry for that?

EVAN: Well, I was gonna say we’re so hungry. I mean I think the people here are so used to ad hoc food experiences now because we’re the land of the taco truck, land of the pop up. We’re used to going to unusual places to eat and meet people. And we’re used to participating in these like…. I mean, the word pop-up is so good because it’s not just a food pop up, but it’s like a little community springs up. And then it goes away, but it leaves traces, right? I mean you can meet somebody that becomes a friend and somebody you call on later. And I just think we’re so used to it now, and everybody’s always looking for the new. But this is a way of grounding that experience in something real.

I just think the takeaway for me from the Supper Club is really as Angelenos, as people who love to eat, we all spend our dollars. And you know how people are always saying vote with your fork when it comes to sustainability issues? Well, this is another way to vote with your fork, but for immigration issues and just for being a good neighbor.

CARMEN: Be a good neighbor. That request sounds so simple, but Miry and her team are proving it to be more powerful than we ever could’ve imagined. What they have built with the Supper Club is an enduring reminder that deliberate acts of kindness can transform entire communities and foster culture change in every neighborhood. of how powerful that one guiding principle can be—and how close it can bring any community.

What has this experience really shown you in terms of, you know?

CHRISTY: I think that it’s shown me so many things. It’s shown me how, one, how resilient our families are and how dedicated they are to making their life in America work. They are the hardest working people I know. A lot of events, you know, they’ll stay up all night preparing food, like not sleep at all. And then they go to the event ,and then they’re on. And that is driven by them wanting to provide for their children. And again, looping back, moms helping moms. They left everything they had, all their belongings and most of their family. And if you ask any of our families, why did you do that, the moms always say—and the Dads—“We did this for our kids. We’re going to struggle here. It’s going to be hard for us. But they will have the opportunity to thrive.” And you see it. Of the families I serve in Claremont, we had four Claremont high school graduates this year of Claremont Canopy families. Four girls, [laughs] and they’re all going to college. And it was like the pride in those families watching those girls get that diploma is that is why they’re here.

So, it’s taught me that. It’s taught me how this could apply to all sorts of populations. But with the refugee population, they just need someone to stand with them and advocate on their behalf. And by Miry and Katie and myself coming up with the Supper Club model, which is out of the box and unique and with lots of moving parts, and we’ve been able to change the lives of our families. And so, I think I’ve learned that there’s just power in just one person saying, “Let’s try this.” And that was Katie when this was founded. She called Miry and said, “Let’s try this.” And a week later, they had a pop up in a backyard for Valentine’s Day. And now, we had had over 50 events and distributed like $60,000 worth of salaries to families. So, it’s the power of one idea. At every supper Club event and Miry’s List event, it really boils down to the power of one person and one idea and the impact it can make on hundreds and hundreds of people.

[theme music]

CARMEN: Okay, folks. That’s all for this installment of Popaganda by Bitch Media. This episode was produced by Cher Vincent and hosted by me: feminist writer, editor, and activist Carmen Rios, as part of our HEAT season. Our jingle is by Mucks & Owen Wuerker. Today’s guests were Maaysa Kanjo, Miry Whitehill, Christy Anderson, and Evan Kleiman.

The conversation doesn’t stop here. Use the hashtag #Popaganda on social media to share your thoughts and feelings on the show. Follow Bitch @BitchMedia on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to get more feminist stuff like this in your feed (algorithm willing). And find me @carmenriosss (with three s’s) for behind-the-scenes selfies and unsolicited excerpts from my secret Tumblr.

Popaganda is produced by nonprofit, independent, Bitch Media. Our feminist response to pop culture is funded entirely by our community. So, if you loved what you just heard, you can support this show directly by joining The Rage, Bitch’s monthly membership program for fed-up feminists like you, at bitchmedia.org/rage. Members get print and digital subscriptions to Bitch magazine, a members-only Filled With Rage mug, and other sweet feminist swag! If you wanna send me hate mail, you can do that at carmenfuckingrios.com. And if you wanna make sure you never miss an episode of the show, you know the drill: subscribe to Popaganda on iTunes, Spotify, or Stitcher.

Stay tuned for the last episode in our HEAT season later this month, which will feature the voices of fiery feminists who have been blazing new trails in the movement. ’Til then, I’ll see you on the internet.

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by Carmen Rios
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Carmen Rios is the host of Bitch’s Popaganda podcast. She’s also the Managing Digital Editor at Ms. magazine and co-host of Trigger Happy, a weekly webseries about women’s issues on Binge Network. She has been described as “petulant and idiotic,” “intimidating to some,” “vapid and uninteresting” and “brazenly misandrist.”