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Women of Syria dinner in Fort Lauderdale will bring refugee stories and food to life

Most South Beach Wine and Food Festival events are unabashed celebrations of celebrity food culture, an excuse to eat, drink and rub elbows with famous chefs and Food Network stars. The Women of Syria dinner taking place Friday, Feb. 23, at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts will be a bit different.

Syrian refugees, a group that has been maligned, disparaged and used as a political football in debates on immigration and terrorism, will be the unsung stars of a family-style dinner featuring Middle Eastern cuisine.

“When I heard their story, I was blown away,” says Ingrid Hoffmann, a Food Network and Univision host who will present the event with New Orleans-based chef Alon Shaya.

Syrian women from food clubs in South Florida and Denver will collaborate on the 100-seat dinner in the Porter Ballroom, which will include beef-stuffed grape leaves, tomatoes, cucumbers and mint with za’atar flatbread, sumac-spiced lentil stew with pomegranate, and spiced lamb shank with yogurt and rice.

“Our group did not exist a year ago, so it is a big honor to be a part of the festival,” says Christa Tawil, business manager for Zaytouna, a Miami-based food company that the South Florida refugees started last fall.

The achievement is also remarkable, considering the hardships and horrors the families have endured surviving and fleeing a brutal civil war. “One woman told me about seeing bodies hanging from the rafters of the school in her village,” Tawil, 29, says.

Tawil, who came to the United States five years ago from Aleppo and studied business and marketing, speaks fluent English. But many of the women speak little English and were not accustomed to working outside their homes until war uprooted them.

Tawil says when she moved to Miami from San Francisco two years ago, she reached out by Facebook to roughly 30 Syrian families who resettled in South Florida. That led to the formation of the Syrian Supper Club, which prepared meals at private homes and local houses of worship in an effort to promote tolerance and understanding of the Syrians’ plight.

Hoffmann was among those who last year attended a Syrian Supper Club event at a Miami home.

“Food is a unifier,” Hoffmann says. “No matter where we come from, we can all share a table.”

The success of supper club events led Tawil and the women last fall to start Zaytouna (which means “olive” in Arabic, evoking an olive branch of peace). It is a food company that makes and sells traditional Syrian pastries and spice mixes at local farmers’ markets and online.

“It’s a way for them to be self-sufficient,” Tawil, who often picks up the women at their homes (scattered from Broward to South Miami-Dade counties) and drives them to a catering firm in Cutler Bay that allows the women to use its kitchen to prepare food.

That catering firm, Chef David Cuisine and Event Design, has also hired some of the women for part-time jobs. David Schwadron and Aaron Dreilinger, the chefs and co-owners of the firm, say they are thrilled to give the Syrians a chance to launch careers and a business.

It is quite the mix of cultures at the Cutler Bay catering kitchen. Schwadron and Dreilinger are Jewish, Tawil is Catholic and the other Zaytouna women are Muslims who wear hijabs and avoid pork and alcohol. Many Chef David workers are from Central America and the Caribbean. Tawil says the women are fine with a food-festival event where wine will flow freely.

Hoffman, a Colombian-American cookbook author and restaurateur who has a wide following, last summer pitched the idea of a festival dinner featuring the Syrian refugees to Lee Schrager, executive director of the South Beach Wine and Food Festival. Shaya pitched a similar idea to Schrager after he spent time in Denver as a judge for the TV show "Top Chef," where he met Syrian refugees involved in the Comal Heritage Food Incubator. This week, Shaya announced plans to open an Israeli restaurant in Denver.

Five women from Comal will join five women from Zaytouna at the dinner.

“I knew it might be a tough sell, but it’s a worthwhile event,” Schrager says. The dinner marks the first time the Broward Center for the Performing Arts will be used as a festival venue.

Hoffmann says she was planning to buy 30 tickets for friends and family and that she hoped to “single-handedly make it a sellout,” but tickets ($200) remained 48 hours before the event. “It’s going to be educational, and it’s going to help [erase] stigma,” Hoffmann says.

Women of Syria Dinner, hosted by Ingrid Hoffman and Alon Shaya, will take place 7-10 p.m., Friday, Feb. 23, at Broward Center for the Performing Arts (Porter Ballroom), 201 SW Fifth Ave., in Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $200. Go to SoBeWFF.org/Hoffmann.

mmayo@southflorida.com, 954-356-4508. Follow my food adventures on Instagram: @mikemayoeats. Sign up for my weekly dining newsletter at SouthFlorida.com/EatBeatMail.

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