When Najla, a Syrian refugee, first arrived in Highland Park, New Jersey, she faced an unfamiliar life and mostly stayed home. Separated from her sons, who are still waiting to come to the U.S., Najla got connected to a ministry at The Reformed Church of Highland Park (RCHP), called the Global Grace Café.
Now, Najla shines as a chef at the café, where her hummus and eggplant dishes win over patrons—and she makes money, too.
“That café became a crucible, if you will, for a new life,” says Rev. Seth Kaper-Dale, senior co-pastor at RCHP, who noticed Najla’s improved demeanor.
Caring for refugees is a faith conviction, says Kaper-Dale. Church leaders revived RCHP’s refugee ministry during the summer of 2015, praying and preparing for how they might connect with the local refugee community. With recent trauma behind them and linguistic challenges before them, these displaced individuals need jobs and positive connections in their new communities.
The weekday lunch café fills both of those needs. It opened in the church’s quilt room, and provides two, part-time staff roles plus additional chef positions. Church members, students and refugees volunteer. As refugees serve, their English improves.
“Your heart begins to warm to a place where you’re then able to give,” Kaper-Dale says.
Theme days, such as Indian Mondays and Syrian Tuesdays, feature ethnic entrees, soups and salads for low prices. Kaper-Dale estimates that the café serves 50 entrees daily and is close to breaking even.
At that New Jersey table, the last are made first and community is built. Kaper-Dale calls the scene “slightly Edenic in a very, very broken world.”
“There’s something extra sacred about sitting at that table,” he says.