Mawda Altayan and Ghaidaa Masrabi carefully arranged fragrant trays of stuffed grape leaves, fresh hummus and pita, tabbouleh, chicken shawarma and baklava, preparing to welcome hungry college students for a Syrian lunch.
Soon after, students and faculty from the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis filled the room and filled their plates.
“I’ve always loved to cook and share the food with my friends,” Altayan said. “I love this job because it’s part of my personality.”
Altayan and Masrabi are part of Welcome Neighbor STL’s Supper Club program, an initiative where refugee chefs prepare traditional food from their home countries and share their stories with host groups around the St. Louis area. Proceeds from the events directly benefit the cooks.
Altayan and her husband, Mohi Alhamowi, came to St. Louis in 2016 after leaving their home in Damascus, Syria, amid the country’s civil war. She spoke no English and felt isolated in her new home until she connected with Welcome Neighbor STL and its director Jessica Bueler, who learned of her love for cooking and invited her to be part of the Supper Club program.
Altayan, a mother of four, now regularly cooks for Supper Clubs and also owns a private catering business, Damascus Food, with her husband.
“Welcome Neighbor opened the community for us,” Altayan said.
Masrabi, her husband, Ayman Almlla, and their three children also arrived in St. Louis from Syria in 2016 after spending four years as refugees in Egypt. In Syria, Almlla owned a restaurant and butcher shop; now, he and Masrabi cook for the Supper Clubs together to supplement his income from a job at a local Japanese restaurant.
“When we came here, we didn’t know anyone, we didn’t know the language, and that made it so hard,” Almlla said. “When we started working with (Welcome Neighbor STL), we started to meet people, to learn about how to have a fresh start in the United States. They helped us pick up the language and make decent money.”
This fall, Welcome Neighbor STL received a $10,000 grant from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD), the domestic anti-poverty program of the U.S. Catholic bishops.
Local CCHD grants are administered by the archdiocesan Peace and Justice Commission and approved by Archbishop Mitchell T. Rozanski. Applicants must demonstrate a focus on CCHD’s priorities: priority for the poor, solidarity, subsidiarity, institutional change and development of financial capital.
Welcome Neighbor STL plans to use the CCHD grant money to pilot a food truck as an extension of the Supper Club program, said Bueler, the nonprofit’s director. Like the Supper Club, refugee chefs will use the food truck to prepare dishes from their home countries and have face-to-face conversations with people as they serve the food, with the proceeds going back to the chefs.
Besides the income, the most important thing chefs gain from the Supper Club experience — and hopefully, the food truck — is confidence, Bueler said.
“When they are out doing these events, and they meet wonderful loving people that ask them questions, then they feel accepted, they feel included, they feel welcomed, and that gives them confidence” for more events and beyond, she said. More than a dozen families have started their own businesses after being part of the Supper Club program.
The nonprofit plans to test-drive the food truck concept at several locations around St. Louis this spring.
To mark the 10th anniversary of Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” (“the Joy of the Gospel”), the archdiocesan CCHD Advisory Committee has set aside local CCHD funds for parishes working to reach those on the margins. Parishes can apply for a grant for projects that highlight the messages and themes of Evangelii Gaudium, which include the importance of spreading the Gospel with joy and enthusiasm, a renewed focus on pastoral care and a call to be more welcoming to all, addressing issues of social injustice and economic inequality with a preferential option for the poor, the importance of the laity in the evangelizing mission of the Church and a focus on interfaith dialogue and cooperation.
The parish grants will be one-time grants of up to $2,000 that must be used during the 2024 calendar year. The funds can be used for initiatives including bringing a speaker to a parish, training, events, webinars, community activities or other proposals. Applications for grants will be evaluated with specific emphasis on:
• Initiatives aimed at addressing social injustice, poverty alleviation and economic equality by funding applications that work with vulnerable populations, promote fair economic practices or advance social justice causes.
• Applications that center on interfaith dialogue, cooperation and peace-building efforts that foster understanding and collaboration among different religious communities.
• Initiatives to engage communities in faith-based outreach and inclusion, such as programs that promote community development, support marginalized groups or encourage active participation of the laity in Church activities.
• Applications that focus on educating and empowering young people in matters of faith, social justice and evangelization.
Applications for parish grants opened Dec. 1 with a deadline of Jan. 15. Grants will be awarded in March 2024. For more information about parish grants, contact Marie Kenyon at (314) 792-7062 or [email protected].
Missourians to Abolish the Death Penalty (MADP) received a $70,000 national CCHD grant this year, the nonprofit’s fourth time receiving CCHD funds.
CCHD grant money has helped MADP hire people to work on the ground in St. Louis, host educational events, support legislative work and expand outreach to people who are incarcerated, said Elyse Max, co-director of MADP.
In the past year, the organization has focused much of its energy on individual clemency campaigns for the four people executed by the state in 2023, a marked increase over past years. Now, with no scheduled executions on the books, “we can drill down a little farther into the ways that the death penalty is impacting people in our state, and how to break the cycle of violence and trauma,” Max said.
The Catholic Campaign for Human Development
The Catholic Campaign for Human Development is the domestic anti-poverty program of the U.S. Catholic bishops, working to carry out the mission of Jesus Christ “…to bring good news to the poor…release to the captives…sight to the blind, and let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18).
The belief that those who are directly affected by unjust systems and structures have the best insight into knowing how to change them is central to CCHD. CCHD works to break the cycle of poverty by helping low-income people participate in decisions that affect their lives, families and communities. CCHD offers a hand up, not a hand out.
To learn more about the national CCHD, visit stlreview.com/47wZPCQ To learn more about the local CCHD, visit cchdstl.org.
>> Give to the CCHD
CCHD grants are made possible by donations from Catholics throughout the country, including the annual parish collection taken up in November. Twenty-five percent of donations stay in the Archdiocese of St. Louis to fund local grants, while 75% of donations are sent to the CCHD national office to fund larger national grants.
To donate to the CCHD, visit stlreview.com/3uDsx6w