OKLAHOMA CITY — Dressed in a royal blue head scarf and an elegant dress of the same color, Wafaa Aldoori stood out in the crowd at an Oklahoma City coffee house.
However, the food that she served — a dish of long-grain rice and vermicelli stir-fried with raisins — also captured people’s attention.
Aldoori was part of a small group of Iraqi refugees who prepared dishes from their native land for the new Refuge Supper Club.
The inaugural event held recently at Elemental Coffee was designed to bring refugee communities together with members of the community-at-large for an informal meal.
It was a night of cultural cuisine and conversation.
Michelle Nhin, of Edmond, told The Oklahoman she created the supper club after hearing about similar events happening in other parts of the country.
Nhin said both of her parents were refugees from Vietnam and her mother always thought many refugee communities remained isolated from others around them due to their special circumstances and the lack of activities bringing them together with the community-at-large.
The University of Central Oklahoma graduate and land analyst for Williams Cos. said the supper club is a way to address this issue, modeled after the dinners hosted by her father’s large Vietnamese family.
“Food has always been a binding agent for us,” she said.
Nhin was thrilled when refugee communities in the metro area embraced the dinner concept she began discussing with them in January.
“They really want to be part of something,” she said.
“And I wanted the Refuge Supper Club to be a place of refuge. I want them to feel welcome and I don’t think they always feel welcome.”
She decided to bankroll the debut event herself and give any funds raised from the dinner’s admission fee to the refugees.
They wouldn’t have it.
Nhin said they suggested the money go instead to organizations like The Spero Project, a local faith-based nonprofit which offers tangible assistance and meaningful relationships to refugees.
About 25 people from the community attended the first supper club meal on April 20. The next dinner, featuring Burmese cuisine made by Burmese refugees, is set for June 1 at Plenty Mercantile. She said a future dinner will feature Somalian dishes and then a second meal featuring Iraqi cuisine will be held.
“The main goal is to get those people who have not met any refugees, who are not sure about refugees, to come and have dinner with us,” Nhin said. “Personally interacting with someone is different from seeing someone’s photo in a newspaper or on TV. Maybe there will be connections that come from this so that members of the community will say ‘Come to my house for dinner.’”
Guests arrived for the debut dinner and were immediately treated to tea, olives and Kubba, a dish made with bulgur, minced meat, spices and onions. Attendees were given placards featuring the menu for the evening, the premise of the event and tidbits about the country of Iraq.
Aldoori, 60, was the first refugee to introduce her dish called biryani and share a bit of her journey to the U.S. with attendees.
She said she and her family left Iraq for safe haven in Dubai but came to America when her son and her husband lost their jobs. Aldoori said they have enjoyed living in Oklahoma since they arrived in September 2016.
“This seems to be a safe place to raise children,” she said. “We’re hoping to have a better future for our grandchildren.”
Aldoori said she liked the supper club event because of the opportunity for people of other cultures to mingle over a meal and “we get to know each other.”
“The way we know them is to just mix with them,” she said of the other guests.
Nada Alkhadhar introduced herself and her husband, a professional chef named Ahmed Alrais, who cooked the bulk of the dinner, that included baklava, lamb; jagek cucumber salad; tabbouleh; eggplant and tomato sauce; dolma, stuffed grape leaves filled with beef, rice, lemon, spices and vegetables; Iraqi tashreeb, a soup dish made with chickpeas and met, served with flatbread; and Iraqi ziabia, a sweet fried cookie.
Alkhadhar said her spouse went to culinary school in France where his father was an ambassador. She said he once cooked for VIPs in Baghdad, including Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
Alkhadhar said she formerly worked for Catholic Charities of Oklahoma City and currently works for the Homeless Alliance. She said she and her family came to the U.S. and settled in Chicago for nine years before making their way to Oklahoma in 2014 when her husband was offered a job in the metro.
“I’m an American now. I want American people to know more about our culture,” she said.
Their son, Mohamed Alrais, 24, and his wife, Stephanie Murray, 24, talked with diners throughout the evening, with Mohamed, who wore an Arab headdress, delighting guests with his sense of humor and animated delivery of jokes.
On a serious note, he said most refugees find themselves in horrific circumstances that they have no control over.
“It’s not our fault we were born in a war zone,” Alrais said.
Meanwhile, Tim Ryan and his friend Lorene Roberson, both of Oklahoma City, sampled each dish as they were served, expressing particular enthusiasm for the lamb chops. The pair said they learned about the dinner through Facebook.
Ryan, 55, who conducts tours and events for National Geographic, said he has traveled extensively in the Middle East and was surprised to learn that Oklahoma City had an Iraqi community. He said he was intrigued by the Refuge Supper Club concept.
“I think it helps to dispel all the misconceptions that there are out there and maybe we can learn cultural etiquette as well,” he said.
Elizabeth Maxwell said she found out about the dinner through Nhin and thoroughly enjoyed the evening.
“I thought it was great. Food is such a connector of people and there’s such an abundance here,” she said.
Kaitlyn Ritchie, community coordinator for The Spero Project, said the event’s timing was perfect.
“In the last couple of months the topic of refugees has been in the media and been politicized, those who are coming in and those who have been here for years,” she said.
She said the Refuge Supper Club allowed community members to enter the lives of the refugees among them as “learners and not teachers,” gaining an education about the refugees’ rich cultural heritage.
“To get to hear the stories of the people who made the food and to get to know them as people, that is a picture of unity that we don’t get to see very often,” Ritchie said.
“That’s when we can see our international friends becoming part of the rich tapestry of our community.”