In 1980, soon after Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan, Zubair Popal fled the country with his wife, Shamim, two young sons and infant daughter.
“There was no hope for me to stay,” he recalls. “I thought about the future of my kids. And in those days when the Soviet Union went to a country and invaded that country, they never left.”
Eventually, the Popals landed in America and rebuilt their lives. Today, the family owns several successful restaurants in Washington, D.C., including the acclaimed Lapis, which serves Afghan cuisine. On a recent evening, they opened up the restaurant to host a free dinner welcoming refugees in their city.
“We came here exactly like these people – we had no place to stay,” Zubair Popal recalls. He chokes up and takes a long pause before adding, “It reminds me of the days we came … I know for these people it’s very hard, very hard.”
The dinner was part of Refugees Welcome, a campaign that encourages locals across the U.S. to host similar meals for refugees in their community — and to break barriers by breaking bread together.
“The intention is to really humanize the refugee issue and to say, let’s meet each other as neighbors. Let’s talk about ways that we’re similar rather than ways that we’re different,” says Amy Benziger, the U.S. lead for the campaign, which was launched in February and is sponsored by UNICEF, among other partners.
The first dinner was held just a few weeks after President Trump signed an executive order barring travelers from several Muslim-majority nations and new refugees from entering America. That ban has since been blocked by courts, but the dinner campaign is still going: More than 30 such events have been held so far in the U.S., and they’re now expanding into Canada and Europe, Benziger says.
About 40 people showed up for this D.C. dinner, which was organized by four local female entrepreneurs in collaboration with the Popal family.
“I’ve been living in Washington for 12 years, and I’m a recent U.S. citizen,” says Kalsoom Lakhani, one of the night’s organizers and the founder and CEO of Invest2Innovate, which funds entrepreneurs in developing nations.
“I’ve been conflicted and angry about the recent news about the travel ban and what that meant for how people that were coming into this country felt – especially as a new American citizen,” she says.
Guests and hosts mingled for a while before sitting down at one long dining table set up in an intimate, candle-lit space in the lower level of the restaurant. Main courses were served family style – the better to encourage conversation while asking your seat mate to pass the challow, a long-grain Afghan rice dish seasoned with cumin.
Because the dinner took place during the month-long Ramadan holiday, it was presented as an iftar – the meal Muslims eat to break the fast each night. That meant no alcohol on the menu. Instead, the hosts served a mint yogurt “mock-tail” and Afghan fare including murgh qorma, an onion and tomato-based chicken braise traditionally eaten during Ramadan in Afghanistan.
Ten refugees showed up for the Lapis dinner. They included several young men from Afghanistan and Beza, a journalist who fled Ethiopia last year after being tortured and imprisoned. She asked us not to use her full name to avoid endangering her family still in Ethiopia. “I’m not afraid here anymore,” she says of her new life in D.C. “I feel safe. There’s a huge Ethiopian community here. I feel like home.”
Also present was Manyang Reath Kher, who arrived in the U.S. more than a decade ago as a teenager. He was one of thousands of children, known as the Lost Boys of Sudan, who were orphaned by that country’s long-running civil war. “It’s real hard ’cause you don’t know anyone here,” he recalls of his arrival. “You’re like, where’s my family? First of all, you don’t know language. You don’t know anyone. It’s also cold.”
But now, he laughs, “I’m good.” And he’s doing good, too: He’s the founder of Humans Helping Sudan, a nonprofit that runs several on-the-ground programs that teach refugees in Ethiopia and Sudan how to fish and farm and creates employment opportunities there.
Creating opportunities is also one of the goals of this dinner, says Benziger. “We’ve had amazing outcomes from dinners like this that have happened organically. Jobs have been created, friendships have been made.”
She says a connection made at a New York City dinner helped a refugee from Ghana land a fellowship. And two people who met at an event in Southern California — one of whom was a refugee — ended up launching a creative agency together.
“For tonight, I just want to see people happy, starting to connect, feeling comfortable in their skin and their community,” Benziger says.
As for Zubair Popal, he had a simple message for the refugees present — one that was rooted in his own experience: “Things will be OK. They will be OK.”
Maria Godoy is a senior editor with NPR and host of The Salt. She’s on Twitter @mgodoyh.