MISSOULA, Mont. — Ghalia Ahmad Fayez AlMasri wore a crisp gray chef’s coat over a pink sweater and handed out instructions to her kitchen team as Egyptian and Lebanese dance music boomed from a cell phone’s speakers. On this Tuesday evening in March, Ms. AlMasri’s eight-member crew had 150 meals to prepare — a total sell-out.
Around Missoula, a college town of 75,000, Ms. AlMasri, 33, has become something of a little celebrity chef. Customers in jeans and sturdy boots lined up outside in freezing temperatures to sample her baba ghanouj and halawa bi forge, a pistachio-topped semolina pudding.
“People know me,” said Mrs. AlMasri. “When I cook, my meal goes very, very quickly — 15 minutes this time.”
The kitchen where she works, one of the city’s most popular, is in the nondescript basement of the First United Methodist Church on East Main Street. The dinners are part of a weekly program called United We Eat @Home, where refugees and other immigrants living in Missoula prepare takeout meals to supplement their income.
Started during the pandemic by Soft Landing Missoula, a nonprofit that supports refugees and immigrants from around the world, the takeaway has been extremely popular — more than 2,200 people receive the weekly menu by email on Thursdays at 9:00 a.m. hit inboxes, it’s a race against time: meals sell out every week, often in less than 30 minutes.
Their success led United We Eat to hire its first refugee staffer, Rozan Shbib, as a kitchen assistant last year. The program has also helped refugees apply for farmers’ market permits, and made it possible for Masala, a curry restaurant in downtown Missoula, to hire staff made up almost entirely of refugees.
Ms. AlMasri, who fled the conflict in Damascus, Syria, arrived in Missoula in 2017 with her husband and two sons, ages 6 and 8. She is one of 431 refugees and nearly 100 Afghan evacuees resettled in Missoula by the International Rescue Committee since 2016, and one of 18 home cooks participating in the United We Eat program.
Those chefs — from Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iraq, Pakistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and elsewhere — face many of the same challenges as restaurant chefs. They plan their menus a month in advance to allow enough time to order specific ingredients, such as Aahu Barah-branded halal meat, teff flour, and basmati rice. They consider how spicy a sauce can be without offending sensitive taste buds. They worry if their food still looks appetizing when the guests get it home.
Ms. AlMasri, facing a group of customers, carefully packed her meals into the canvas carrier bags they had brought with them. She arranged boxes filled with shakriya, a dish of tender chicken wrapped in a rich yogurt sauce over vermicelli pilaf; and zahrah, an intensely savory cauliflower stew. She stacked 8-ounce deli containers filled with baba ghanouj, explaining that the phrase means “spoiled papa” in Arabic. Meat dishes are her bestsellers – this is Montana after all.
A few customers thanked her with the Arabic word ‘shukran’. The translation was written in English and Arabic script alongside a few other sentences on a whiteboard by the serving table, encouraging the Missoulians to communicate in Ms. AlMasri’s native language and pushing them out of their comfort zones. “Bindura” means tomato; chicken is “dajaj”.
“It’s about shifting those power dynamics and making sure this is the refugee chef vibe in this space,” said Beth Baker, the program manager.
The chefs each earn an average profit of $850 per meal service. By selling meals of beef kofta, potato pakura and rote, Farida Abdul Aziz, 51, was able to send money to her son, Sohil, in Afghanistan. Cooking, she said, earns her “a lot of money,” which is in addition to the wages she earns working in the deli section of a local Walmart.
“But not only the money is important,” said Ms Adbul Aziz. “I enjoy the people.”
Ms Abdul Aziz applied for asylum in the United States in 2014, leaving her five children – including Sohil, her youngest of 12 – behind in Afghanistan. In early March, Sohil was granted access under a US Citizenship and Immigration Services program that reunites families of refugees and asylum seekers. After being apart for eight years, mother and son hugged in a long embrace at the Missoula Montana airport. United We Eat shared the news in a forthcoming newsletter, in an effort to increase customer awareness of Ms Abdul Aziz and her family.
Most customers recognize the faces of famous chefs and look forward to specific cuisines. Their only complaint: the meals sell out too quickly.
Jim Streeter, 72, a retired accounting and finance professional in Missoula, waits at his home computer for Thursday morning’s emails. A week in February, even that didn’t work. Mr. Streeter walked downstairs to pass the next week’s menu to his wife Sara, but by the time he got back to the computer it was sold out.
Customers say the meals offer culinary diversity they can’t find anywhere else. The Census Bureau estimated that the population of Missoula County was 91.7 percent white in 2021. Without the United We Eat program, there would be no place for Missoulians to order Congolese, Pakistani or Guinean food.
Tri Pham, 49, a high school counselor who has ordered from United We Eat nearly every week since last fall, says his wife and daughters look forward to the variety. With every order there are papers that explain the dishes, the ingredients and the background of the chef. Ms. AlMasri’s mealtime biography noted her arrival in Missoula during a record-breaking cold spell, describing how aubergines for baba ghanouj are typically roasted over an open fire for a slightly smoky flavor.
“We like exposing our girls to it so they have a broader world view,” said Mr. Pham, “that it’s not just burgers and chips.”
Soft Landing’s culinary program mirrors that in other states, such as the New Arrival Supper Club in Los Angeles; Welcome Neighbor STL to St. Louis; Break Bread, Break Borders in Dallas; and Sanctuary Kitchen in New Haven, Conn. But since Montana was one of only two states not to accept refugees when Soft Landing Missoula began in 2015, it was a particularly important resource for cultural exchange.
“There’s so much more to the culture of these countries than just what people see on the news,” said Dave Erickson, 40, a staff writer at The Missoulian. “You hear that there are refugees here. But when you meet someone from the Democratic Republic of Congo, you realize, ‘Oh, Missoula is home to a whole community of people from that country.’”
Mary Poole, the executive director of Soft Landing Missoula, wants Missoulians to see refugees and other immigrants as assets. Many of the newcomers aspire to open businesses, which the program supports through a Business 101 class at Missoula’s Lifelong Learning Center.
Owning a Syrian restaurant is Ms. AlMasri’s goal. She is encouraged by the reputation she has earned from her to-go meals and would like to serve a wider menu of kebab hindi, freekeh salad and khafeh.
“Some don’t know me, but they try my food, and next time they will know me,” said Ms. AlMasri. “They will know my food.”