Jamil Kadoura doesn’t simply laugh. He bellows, in a deep, prideful, joyous baritone, awakening unexpected feelings of nostalgia for whoever is having a conversation with him. Because his immediate affection will somehow remind you of someone you know, even for a brief moment. Someone like family.

Since Kadoura and his wife, Angela, opened Mediterranean Deli in 1992, they have provided a generous hospitality to the Chapel Hill community through food and fellowship. In the beginning, the cafe only fit twelve tables and a small six-foot deli case. Today, it’s a sprawling, renowned West Franklin Street lunch stop for college students, visiting parents and professors, and townies alike, with lavish portions that become leftovers for dinner. The deli case is now triple its original size. There’s also a corner bakery and wood-fired oven that continuously serves up fresh, hot pita bread (even for the gluten intolerant) and a side food market offering the best in fresh produce and Mediterranean and Middle Eastern imports.

Kadoura is an immigrant, a refugee who grew up in occupied Palestine. The fighting began in 1967, when he was seven years old. And he remembers it very clearly: his family’s escape route, all five of them trekking on foot through the mountains in the dark, sleeping in a cave alongside a few other families and a man his parents later told him was dead, fearing arrest at every turn.

So when he watches the news with his own American-born children todaynews of war and families torn apart by greed and violencehe sees his younger self on the TV.

“I lived that life,” he says. “When I see them walking through the terrain in the mountains with their animals and their bags, which are actually blankets wrapped up, I tell my kids, ‘We walked that.’ And the older I get, the more I remember it.”

When Carrboro began receiving Syrian refugee families, those deep-rooted memories compelled Kadoura to support them. He found jobs for six fathers. And in November, he hosted The Giving Table, a ticketed banquet at Mediterranean Deli that raised money for Syrian families newly settled in Chapel Hill. Kadoura shouts with glee when he says that, in under three hours, the event raised $26,000 that was split evenly among the six families. (From October 2015 to July 2016, 372 Syrian refugees came to North Carolina.)

“We are in a beautiful bubble here in Chapel Hill,” he says. But, amid the intolerance and discriminatory policies of the Trump presidency, Kadoura is acting on the urge to do his part to maintain a welcoming community. “To fight it, we have to stick together. We have to confront it. And the only way to confront it is to help others. America is getting browner every day. You like it or you don’t, but that’s what America is all about.”

Migration, he continues, is “such a beautiful journey. [President Trump] wants to take that away from us.”

In conversation, Kadoura shifts from ebullient to thoughtful, his heart on his sleeve. His big personality is coupled with a deep pride for his culture and for how far he’s come. Kadoura says he was the first person to open a Middle Eastern restaurant in town. He grew up in Jerusalem, taking the hour of recess during the school day to help the falafel vendor on the sidewalk. With the support of the United Nations, he landed a ticket to study in England and live with a host family.

It was there, at dinner, that he experienced something odd. “They gave me my own plate. And a fork!” Kadoura says, howling with laughter. This quotidian Western act is something he still can’t wrap his head around.

“I am proud of what we Arabs are, our cultures,” he says. “We learn lots of things that unfortunately you don’t learn as easily here. Like sharing. I was never taught to share anything. I learned it at the table.”

This sharing is ingrained in his memory. He paraphrases his mother: “Whenever you give something, throw it into the ocean. It comes back to you. Don’t wait for it to come back. Just do it.”

The Syrian families living in Chapel Hill have all been to Kadoura’s home for meals and weekend socials. Kadoura says they’ve gifted him with framed photographs of their own families, which he keeps in his office at the deli.

“They tell me something we say in Arabic, like, ‘May God lift your spirit when you are down.’ Which means, ‘You lifted our souls.’ That’s when you feel it. This is a big thing.”

Jamil Kadoura photo by alex boerner