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When word came that thousands of Afghan refugees would be landing at Dulles in late August after their country fell to the Taliban, World Central Kitchen mobilized to make sure those reaching the U.S. after a harrowing journey would be greeted with a hot meal. The nonprofit’s first call was to Grace Abi-Najm Shea, one of five siblings behind Lebanese Taverna.
Having collaborated with Lebanese Taverna previously, WCK Chef Tim Kilcoyne wanted to know if their team could produce 1,000 meals within a couple of hours. “We rallied the troops and got a couple hundred meals from each of our locations and delivered them,” Abi-Najm Shea says. “It was a no-brainer.”
Abi-Najm Shea spent the next two weeks elbow deep in pots of lamb, rice, and spinach, rising as early as 6 a.m. After packing meals that WCK will reimburse, she ferried them to the airport. Of the 61,298 meals WCK served there between Aug. 25 and Sept. 10, 5,037 came from Lebanese Taverna.
“Folks are still coming in, not necessarily straight from Kabul, but maybe they’ve been laid over in Europe or elsewhere and their ultimate destination is the U.S.,” says Emma Haberman, WCK’s director of special projects. Her organization feeds most arrivals once they’ve cleared customs and immigration and are awaiting the results of COVID-19 tests. WCK also sets meals aside for unaccompanied minors and others whose paperwork is taking extra time to process.
By the time the refugees receive a meal from Lebanese Taverna or another partner restaurant, they are exhausted. “I met a woman who had been on the tarmac for 16 hours,” Haberman says. “These people’s lives have changed overnight and they face so much uncertainty. To welcome them here with something warm, filling, and familiar was important to us.”
There’s a little overlap between Lebanese and Afghan cuisine, but Abi-Najm Shea called on someone special for guidance. “We had a previous employee who was with us for 12 years who is Afghan,” she says. “I called him and he came instantly. He translated the sign for WCK and wrote, ‘Hello friends, welcome to America. All of the food is halal.’”
Homayon Karimy’s first job in the U.S., in 1998, was at Lebanese Taverna Market in Arlington. He was 16 years old and lived across the street. “Grace was the one who hired me,” he says. “Ever since that first meeting, we bonded. They’re like family to me. I’m like the sixth sibling.”
He’s been in agony thinking about the Afghans who want to leave but can’t find a way out and felt compelled to help the ones who successfully fled. “We’re really grateful so many Afghans arrived safely,” Karimy says. “They’re going to have a future. At least they’re going to be safe.”
When Karimy was helping cook, he was in his comfort zone, but meeting Afghans at the airport for the meal handoff brought back difficult memories. “In the 1980s, I was young, but it refreshed my memory when we left Afghanistan for Pakistan because of instability during the Soviet invasion,” he says. “Everything was coming back to me and it was overwhelming.”
The experience tugged at Abi-Najm Shea’s heart too. Her family of seven was fleeing civil war when they boarded a cargo ship bound for Cyprus in the middle of the night in 1976. She was 2 years old at the time.
“We weren’t in such a dire situation as the Afghan refugees coming, but the story wasn’t that different,” she says. “For me it’s always been a story because I don’t remember it. We were running from war, going to a foreign country and waiting for our papers to be processed before we could go on to the next place. It was a visual reminder of a part of my life that I’m not very familiar with.”
Abi-Najm Shea is 46, the same age today that her father, Tanios Abi-Najm, was when they arrived in the U.S. and settled in Arlington’s Westover neighborhood, where some of their relatives already lived. After a couple of years, Tanios and his wife, Marie, gathered enough money to buy Athenian Taverna in 1979. “There wasn’t enough money to change the whole sign, hence the name Lebanese Taverna was born,” Grace says. “Taverna has nothing to do with Lebanon. It’s a Greek word.”
The community welcomed them with open arms. “The people who became our customers helped us,” Grace says. “They helped me with my homework at night in the restaurant because no one else could. My parents have third-grade educations. My mom was married at 14 and had four kids by the time she was 21 and had me 10 years later.”
Dory, Dany, David, Gladys, and Grace all pitched in. “I was 4 and I was passing out business cards in kindergarten, telling my teachers to come to the restaurant since my school was across the street,” Grace says. One of the only things that irks her is people who ask if Tanios and Marie handed the restaurant down to their children. “No, we’ve been there since day one!” she says.
Together, the family has turned one restaurant into a thriving regional empire with a 42-year legacy. Dany led the expansion. “He’s the CEO but I call him the dreamer, the risk-taker,” Grace says. “My parents only worked in the first location so D.C. [in Woodley Park] 32 years ago and on was him. Lebanese Taverna might have been great as a little restaurant in Westover, but if it was up to my parents that’s all it would have ever been and we would have all done something else and had our own lives.”
“Early on we were in such a unique position, being Middle Eastern and specifically Lebanese,” Dany says. “Hommus was an unknown in the ’70s. I saw a future in Lebanese food and at one point, we decided we wanted to be everything Lebanese to all people.”
The siblings operate five full-service restaurants, seven fast casual LebTav shops, a market, a catering business, and an outpost at National Airport. Dany says the pandemic forced them to put a pin in further expansion plans, with the exception of a Pentagon location due in 2022. The catering arm of the business was hit the hardest, along with the restaurants that depend on office workers and hotel convention attendees.
Facing hardships like these, most hospitality industry businesses had to scale back their community efforts over the past 18 months due to limited time, money, and staff. One reason to root for neighborhood restaurants such as Lebanese Taverna to pull through the pandemic is because they’re constantly supporting causes, donating meals, and making their spaces available to those in need.
“Filling the stomach is a very emotional need and I feel that it really warms people up and brings people together and because restaurants do that day in and day out, by nature they love to give back,” Dany says. Grace agrees. “Food is a basic human instinct,” she says. “If you’re in the restaurant business, you’re not in it for the money. You’re in it to cook and feed people and make them happy. If you can do that, even during the pandemic, it’s something the restaurant gets back for themselves.”
COVID-19 did not slow the family’s community-based approach, especially after they watched with horror as a blast at a port in Beirut killed more than 200 people on August 4, 2020. It wasn’t just any port; it’s the port where Tanios once worked as a customs officer. He moved back to Lebanon 10 years ago, but wasn’t in Beirut that day.
“We have half a dozen cousins who could not live in their homes for quite some time and there were some injuries, but thankfully nothing major,” Grace says.
“That home that they probably showed the most [on the news], one of those old classic homes that got demolished, was actually my grandparents’ home,” Dany says. “Seeing those images on TV called me to go to Lebanon and help.”
He took his son and embedded with WCK for 10 days, making, packaging, and delivering food to those affected by the ammonium nitrate explosion. “I went where I was called and knowing the language helped tremendously,” he says. “I was able to call in reinforcements from my family. I have 67 first cousins. Half of them are in D.C. and the other half are in Lebanon.”
He was happy to link up with WCK founder José Andrés. The Abi-Najm family goes way back with the chef and humanitarian. “I’ve known him since the early ’90s, since he was newly in this country, and we hit it off,” Dany says. “He has a gift of motivating people.”
Grace shares a little known fact. Her family helped open one of Andrés’ first restaurants in D.C. in 2002. “All of Zaytinya’s Lebanese recipes are Lebanese Taverna recipes,” she says. “The hommus was called ‘Lebanese Taverna style’ on the menu. That puffy bread? Does that look familiar?”
Immediately after the explosion in Beirut, Lebanese Taverna launched a fundraising campaign where a dollar from all of their hommus sales went to WCK’s relief work in Lebanon. But regulars who have come to see Lebanese Taverna as an extension of their home kitchens over the past four decades wanted to donate more.
“This is the perfect avenue because people trust us,” Grace says. “Give us the money and we’ll make sure it gets to the right place. I didn’t even have a number in mind when we started but we got $150,000 for the Lebanese Red Cross and World Central Kitchen in a few weeks.” About $125,000 of it came through GoFundMe contributions, while the rest came from the hommus sales.
But the Abi-Najm family’s homeland was suffering before the events of last summer. The World Bank called the country’s financial collapse among the world’s worst, dating back almost two centuries. The crumbling economy has made food, fuel, electricity, and medicine scarce. Tanios will soon turn 90 years old. Grace worries about him. He can only access about $1,000 a month of his own money because the banking system bottomed out. The country’s currency has lost 90 percent of its value over the past two years.
“This affects my family way more than the explosion because this affects everybody, not just people who live near the explosion,” she says. “This is the whole country. Whether you have money or not is irrelevant.”
Even though there’s a global pandemic and other competing crises, Grace decided to step up once again. Lebanese Taverna is asking those who can to contribute to two funds supporting the American University of Beirut Medical Center and its patients. One pays for fuel to keep ventilators and other medical devices running, and another helps individuals pay for care. Her restaurants have hosted alumni association gatherings for AUB in the past.
“I felt a little selfish sending it out because Afghanistan has the world’s stage,” she says. “So many places in the world need help. Of course Lebanon is the closest to us so this is what we’re doing right now.”
She made the ask in an email blast to 50,000 subscribers the day before she got the call from WCK to help feed Afghan refugees landing at Dulles. They were likely also wondering if they would be able to stay connected to a home 7,000 miles away.
Tanios and Marie must be considering their legacy. Marie is still local and didn’t accompany Tanios back to Lebanon because she wanted to watch over her grandchildren. Until she suffered major health setbacks three years ago, the family matriarch visited restaurant locations a few days a week to make sure the food was up to snuff. The company didn’t use standardized recipes until five years ago. Their original consistency strategy was to plant a cook at each location who worked under Marie and Tanios.
“They’re proud but they don’t want us to work so hard,” Grace says. “They’re like, ‘We did this so you wouldn’t have to work so hard.’ They’re always concerned: ‘How’s business? Did you open too many?’” Her mom hasn’t totally relinquished quality control. “A couple times she’ll call me and say, ‘The kibbeh wasn’t good.’ And I tell her, ‘Love you, Mom, OK, bye!’”