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For a Syrian refugee in North Texas, Russia-Ukraine war is a reminder to show empathy to all

Two women sit in front of a window, looking at the camera.
Keren Carrión
Maisaa Alkhdir (left) and Suheila Aljamal (right) are cooks with Dallas-based nonprofit Break Bread, Break Borders. They're both Syrian refugees who relocated to North Texas years ago to escape war in their country.

On a table covered in white linen, Maisaa Alkhdir opens up a tray of savory and tart yalanji — a Syrian appetizer of grape leaves stuffed with rice and vegetables, which is part of the catering for a women’s empowerment event at SMU.

Alkhdir is a cook with Break Bread, Break Borders, a Dallas-based food company that empowers refugee women — from countries like Afghanistan and Syria — to enter the food industry and cook for a living.

Originally from the central city of Homs in Syria, Alkhdir came to North Texas in 2016 to escape her country’s civil war. Given her own experience as a refugee from a war-torn country, she worries about the escalating violence in Ukraine.

“I hope one day it will end. No one is losing — just the people,” Alkhdir said.

She now lives in Wylie with her husband and her mother-in-law. Alkhdir can’t help but remember all that she lost when war broke out in Syria.

“So we lose our homes, we lose our families,” she said. “I didn't see my family for more than 11 years.”

More than 2 million refugees have fled Ukraine since Feb. 24, according to data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Millions more are expected to seek asylum.

Trays of food with rice-stuffed grape leaves, hummus, falafel and pita.
Keren Carrión
Break Bread, Break Borders chefs Maisaa Alkhdir and Suheila Aljamal prepared trays of food for an SMU event, including: yalanji (rice-stuffed grape leaves), hummus, falafel and pita bread.

Amid that mass migration, there’s been ongoing discussion about how Ukrainian refugees have received warmer treatment in Europe than refugees from the Middle East.

Alkhdir said she’s not sure whether that’s due to religious, racial or other differences. But what she’s adamant about is her conviction that war has devastating effects — for regular people everywhere.

“I don't like to be a person who defends our culture or any culture because I don't want war in any country because no one will lose — just the people. So the rich people, they will not lose anything. So it's just for the babies and for their mothers, and someone will kill their fathers.

Some have criticized immigration policy changes like Denmark opening its doors to Ukrainian refugees, while Syrian asylum-seekers have been asked to return home.

Many online have pointed out that the media’s coverage of the Russia-Ukraine war has contributed to the dehumanization of non-white refugees.

In recent weeks, a series of journalists have faced backlash for their coverage of the conflict, like CBS News correspondent Charlie D’Agata. He compared the fighting in a “relatively civilized, relatively European” nation like the Ukraine to conflicts in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan.

The language of food

For Alkhdir, Break Bread, Break Borders has been an opportunity to build cultural bridges and connect with other North Texans from different backgrounds.

When you made a plate and you give it to someone and he likes it, this looks like it's a language between you and with someone who doesn't have this language," she said.

She wants to see Break Bread, Break Borders continue to grow with community support so they can cater more events. In the future, she dreams of opening a restaurant that specializes in Syrian cuisine.

There's a lot of Arabic restaurants here, but they are not from Syria,” she said. “We will find, maybe from Palestine, maybe you will find from Jordan, but not from Syria.”

She loves serving people and seeing them smile as they bite into her food, but the fluffy hummus, falafel and stuffed eggplant has an underlying message: embrace refugees.

“Open your doors for all the refugees because they need. Maybe one day it will be here, maybe one day it will be another country. So we don't want anyone to hurt and we don't want any place to make any war.”

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Got a tip? Email Elizabeth Myong at You can follow Elizabeth on Twitter @Elizabeth_Myong.

Elizabeth Myong is KERA’s Arts Collaborative Reporter. She came to KERA from New York, where she worked as a CNBC fellow covering breaking news and politics. Before that, she freelanced as a features reporter for the Houston Chronicle and a modern arts reporter for Houstonia Magazine.