Sister Act: Afghan refugee siblings to prepare pop-up dinner at Kitchen

Sisters Khadijah Hemmati and Jamileh Amiri know how to cook for a crowd. Photo: Levi Cheff Sisters Khadijah Hemmati and Jamileh Amiri know how to cook for a crowd. Photo: Levi Cheff

Charlottesville chef Gabe Garcia sits at a table in the dimly lit dining room of Kitchen Catering & Events, which he co-owns and operates with his wife, Morgan, also a chef. It’s early evening, cold and drizzly outside, but the air inside is warm and redolent with the smell of a simmering savory soup.

Garcia, 42, explains that Kitchen will host a pop-up dinner on February 26 for Taste of Home, a non-profit started in early 2018 by then-UVA student Mayan Braude. It will be the organization’s third event showcasing home cooking by refugee chefs, who receive all proceeds. Garcia, who moved to the United States from Mexico about 20 years ago, and his wife kicked in use of their dining room and kitchen for free.

“As an immigrant myself, and in the current political climate, I thought it was the right thing to do,” he says.

As if on cue, Jamileh Amiri, 34, and Khadijah Hemmati, 33—sisters and Afghani refugees—step through the front door.

“Smells good in here,” Amiri says cheerfully.

“Feels good, too,” Hemmati says, shrugging off the cold.

Garcia greets the women with handshakes, and they all take seats at the table.

Though they offer few details of their lives in the Middle East, it is safe to say that Amiri and Hemmati undertook remarkable journeys to arrive where they are today. “We left home because we were in danger,” Amiri says. “Afghanistan is a very dangerous place, especially for women. That is why we decided to leave our country—to find a peaceful place for growing our family.”

Hemmati lives in a townhouse in Albemarle County with her five children, a third sister, and their mother. Amiri shares an apartment with her three children and husband. Those simple facts belie the epic story of Amiri and Hemmati’s 14-year separation and subsequent reunion in Charlottesville.

Hemmati was born in Afghanistan in 1984, after which her parents moved to Iran, where Amiri was born, in 1985. Hemmati married when she was 18 and returned with her husband to Afghanistan, within months of the post-9/11 U.S. invasion there. Amiri and her family made plans to immigrate to the United States. After three years, and by then with three children in tow, she succeeded, arriving in the U.S.—Rochester, New York, to be precise—in the fall of 2013.

“It was so cold,” says Amiri, hugging herself as if she could feel the frigid air.

Luckily, she connected through social media with a friend who’d previously immigrated to Charlottesville. “She told me, ‘It’s a small town, it’s nice, and it’s warm,’” Amiri recalls. She moved here immediately, living briefly with her friend before finding subsidized housing. Meanwhile, Hemmati was also trying to escape the conflict-stricken Middle East. For five years in a row beginning in 2011, she applied to immigrate via the U.S. State Department’s Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, commonly called the visa lottery. “Finally, we were winners!” says Hemmati.

In November 2016, the sisters were together once again.

Avid cooks accustomed to preparing food for large family gatherings, Amiri and Hemmati both landed jobs at UVA dining facilities, cooking three meals a day for about 2,000 people. In the spring of 2018, a volunteer with the International Rescue Committee introduced the women to the founders of the Taste of Home program, which had already held its first pop-up at The Southern Crescent, in Belmont.

Taste of Home tapped Amiri and Hemmati for Pop-Up #2, also at Southern Crescent. About 50 diners paid $25 apiece to attend the event, enabling the cooks to pay to study at Piedmont Virginia Community College, among other things. “Jamileh and Khadijah were so lovely to work with that we decided to do another dinner with them,” says Nima Said, 21, a senior studying foreign affairs at UVA and co-director of Taste of Home.

For Pop-Up #3, Garcia says he hopes to fill Kitchen’s 2,500-square-foot dining room, which seats up to 80 people.

“This is something we can definitely handle,” Hemmati says, shooting a glance at her sister and smiling.

Diners can expect chicken kabobs with saffron-infused rice; qabuli pulao, a rice-based dish with carrots and raisins; falafel; dolma, the Afghani version of the Greek dolmades; and for dessert, baklava and fereni, a pudding subtly flavored with honey and rose water.

There’s a lull in the conversation at the table. Hemmati raises her head and sniffs. “The spices smell familiar,” she says.

“Black bean and squash soup for tomorrow’s lunch,” Garcia says.

“Maybe we will come,” Amiri says. “This is a good place.”

Hungry yet?

Taste of Home Pop-Up #3 takes place at 7pm on Tuesday, February 26. Tickets ($20 each) are available through taste-of-home.org.