Burning in the Melting Pot


Iman Alshehab, 49, leaves her Baltimore City apartment at 4am every Saturday in order to prepare food for the weekend farmer's market. After being resettled in the US, she found work as a chef with the MERA Kitchen Collective in Baltimore, Maryland. She has worked to pay off her plane ticket to the U.S., a requirement of the U.S. resettlement program. Now, she continues work for the collective to make rent each month alongside the money she is saving to visit her family back in Jordan.


 Iman prepares breakfast for her employer and his family, while she is on a visit to Jordan, from Baltimore. Before seeking refuge in Jordan, Iman worked as a chef at the Four Seasons Hotel in Damascus, Syria. One day, a mortar came through the kitchen of her house while she was out. She encouraged her son and his family to flee to Jordan immediately. Several months later, she followed. When she arrived, she found work as a live-in-cook for a university professor and his family.


Iman picks a lemon from the tree behind the kitchen of her employer, Dr. Hassan's, home. She saves the lemons for him, which he uses to make lemon juice each morning. In the four years since Iman began working for Dr. Hassan, she has found an extended family with him and his sons.


Iman and her family enjoy a meal together in the basement apartment of Dr. Hassan's home, in Amman, JO. In Jordan, Iman is constantly surrounded by family and is a revered matriarch. After being widowed at a young age, Iman spent most of her adult life caring for her three children as a single mother. As a grandmother, she is never without a couple grandchildren in tow. Although Iman is granted resettlement in the U.S., the rest of her family is not.


Like many resettled refugees in Baltimore, Iman was placed in affordable housing in the Moravia neighborhood on the Far East side of the city. The commute between her apartment and the MERA kitchen downtown is over an hour long, and requires her to cross a busy intersection to transfer buses.

Golden hour in Tafileh. Iman's two daughters live with their families in the rural town three hours south of Amman, Jordan. Before the uprising and civil war in Syria, Iman recalls how often she would drive back-and-forth between Syria and Tafileh to visit them. Now, she must save money over months at a time to afford to make the journey from Baltimore. 


While serving her popular Syrian dishes at the semiannual Refugee and Immigrant Arts Feast in Baltimore, a volunteer walks away to help other vendors and Iman struggles to communicate with customers in English. Iman tries fitting in her English studies between work. However, the financial demands of supporting herself and her family back in Jordan make it difficult to find time to study outside of earning income.


Iman adjusts her hijab in the hallway in Dr. Hassan's home in Amman. A photo of Dr. Hassan hangs from the mirror frame and academic papers pile up on the bureau below. Iman is just as much a part of Dr. Hassan's family as she is a part of her own. While in Jordan, she splits her time between the upstairs and downstairs households seamlessly. In many ways, it is one household and one family.


Iman's family, including her son Shadi (left) surprise her with a cake and gifts in celebration of Mother's Day in Jordan. It is technically a week early, but she will be on a plane back to the United States the next day.


Iman unloads the remaining food items after returning from an event. By the end of two weeks, Iman had worked close to 100 hours. In the last couple days, she had slept less than ten hours.

The kitchen where Iman and her daughter, Shadia, prepare breakfast together in Tafileh, Jordan.


Iman and MERA co-founder, Aisha, take a break from working the food truck in Baltimore, MD. The two women met while Aisha was volunteering with the International Refugee Commission. The two women have formed a deep connection in the few years they've known each other. Aisha’s commitment to the refugee and immigrant community is in part connected to her own immigration experience from Kuwait. The collective has been an important support system for Iman, while navigating life in the U.S. without her family.


Following an emotional conversation regarding family affairs, Iman's daughter collapses in front of her mother, clutching Iman's waist and kissing her hands and feet. After being widowed at a young age, Iman took up the mantle for her family. She has been the first person her family goes to for guidance and support. Since her resettlement in the U.S., her children have felt her absence deeply.


Iman takes a minute to adjust her hijab during a long day at work in the MERA kitchen. I've spent a lot of time capturing and re-capturing this daily ritual. Each time, there seems to be a correlation between her reflection and the complexities she is grappling with that particular day.

Aisha, co-founder of MERA, and Iman work the food truck in Baltimore, MD. Iman works as many of MERA's events as possible. Tonight, she'll finish up at the truck around 10pm, and will wake up the next morning at 3:30am to prepare the food for another event.


Iman naps, while her daughter-in-law prepares coffee. In a few hours, Iman will board a plane back to the U.S. from Amman, Jordan. She does not know when she will be back again to see her family. Although she has spent the majority of her trip working for Dr. Hassan and his family, the money she has earned will barely cover expenses between her transportation and financial assistance for her family. While the family has tried to earn a living, their Syrian refugee status in Jordan prohibits them from access the majority of job opportunities and government services.


Iman finishes washing dishes after a long evening of cooking her famous shawarma at the food truck for the MERA Kitchen Collective in Baltimore, MD.


An early morning view of downtown Baltimore City and the Baltimore Farmers Market under the Jones Falls Expressway. The weekly market was MERA's big break on to the city's food scene, which also brought greater attention to the organization's mission and its members. Iman has become a popular face at the market every Sunday. People practically run up to her to give her a hug. Language barriers between Iman and market goers quickly break down when they eat a heaping spoonful of her charcoal-smoked saffron rice, or bite into a shawarma. Food is the language of love that Iman communicates effortlessly and in endlessly. 


Iman works alongside members and volunteers of the MERA Kitchen Collective to prepare for one of their biggest events of the year: The Refugee and Immigrant Arts Feast. Her hope was to make as much as she did during the last Feast event, and put some of that money towards her next trip back to Jordan to visit family. Instead, she made about half of what she earned the last time.


Iman's daughter, Shadia, washes and slices tomatoes while the family sits outside for a barbecue on the rural outskirts of Tafileh, Jordan.


Iman arrived in Jordan on January 19, 2019 to reunite with her family for the first time since her resettlement in the US over two years ago. Sobs and screams of joy could be heard throughout the arrivals area of Queen Alia International Airport.


After a two-month visit, Iman's family watches her pass through security to board a plane back to the U.S. Iman's son, Shadi, holds onto his daughter, Ghazzal. She sobs uncontrollably, as do other members of the family. They do not know when they'll see her again.


Iman serves traditional Syrian dishes at the MERA-run Refugee and Immigrant Arts Feast. In a crowded space, where the main purpose of the event is to support the refugee and immigrant community of Baltimore, there is still a disconnect felt between those selling food, and those purchasing it. Baltimore City still has a long way to go in providing consistent and reliable support to the resettled refugee community. Additionally, they are struggling to cope with post traumatic stress from their own unique experiences of fleeing violence and persecution. While community-based organizations like MERA Kitchen Collective provide as much support as possible, reliable city-wide and state-wide support is severely lacking. The absence of family to provide critical support to cope with these stressors means that Iman is even more susceptible to the physical and mental toll they continue to bring to bear. 

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