After a night of high emotions, Amer Abdullah dipped a hand into his pocket and was shocked to find nearly $600 in cash. The donations came from customers who periodically handed him loose bills during a fundraiser for the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund held on Wednesday, October 18 at Abdullah’s Hyde Park restaurant, Cedars Mediterranean Kitchen — one of a handful of Palestinian-owned restaurants in Chicago.
The effort sailed past its $10,000 goal and raised $15,072 through proceeds from food sales and other donations; Abdullah says four Cedars workers donated their wages from the night. The fundraiser’s success has galvanized Abdullah and his staff of 16 who want to do more to support children in Gaza impacted by the Israel-Hamas conflict, which began on October 7 with a Hamas attack on Israel and has ensued with deadly strikes by the Israeli army on Gaza. While the restaurant can’t afford to donate all proceeds from sales as it did for the first event — Cedars is a small and family-owned business — the team is planning fundraisers every Wednesday through November with a special menu that enables them to donate half of the day’s proceeds. They’re calling this effort Ceasefire November.
Beyond the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund, Abdullah is expanding to beneficiaries to include the Red Cross as well as Jewish groups that he says share his hope for a ceasefire such as Jewish Voice for Peace, IfNotNow, Breaking the Silence, and B’tselem.
Abdullah, whose family also owns Hot Chi Chicken & Cones on the South Side, has repeatedly visited the West Bank, immersing himself in history to foster an understanding of the relationship between the U.S. and Palestinians. “All my old trauma is being dredged up,” Abdullah says of recent events.
He worked with the U.S. Department of State, which utilizes a Citizen Diplomacy program, and, in 2012, he was asked by the Aspen Institute to coach Palestinian entrepreneurs in the West Bank. As part of the Citizen Diplomacy Program, he attended State Department events in the West Bank as a way to connect local residents with Americans. He even connected one of his friends, Mohammed Amer, the Palestinian American comic and star of Netflix’s Mo, with the program.
Abdullah’s experieces have influenced his activism. He says Western intervention has left Gaza destabilized. On October 7, Hamas, a militant political group that’s governed Gaza since 2007, launched a terror attack on Israel, killing 1,400 people and taking 220 hostages. The Israeli government responded with a phased assault and temporarily cut off food, water, and fuel to Gaza (aid trucks continue to have limited access to the region across Gaza’s border with Egypt). The ensuing airstrikes have leveled neighborhoods within the densely populated region. In recent days, Israel has embarked on a ground invasion into Gaza, where Hamas heavily utilizes a network of underground tunnels. The intense bombardments have killed more than 8,500 people in Gaza, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza. Meanwhile, international organizations including the United Nations and the World Health Organization have warned of an increasingly dire humanitarian situation unfolding within Gaza.
Abdullah says he was raised to speak carefully about the ongoing conflict. He uses Instagram to promote the fundraiser while condemning racism and antisemitism. In the month since the October 7 attack, the U.S. has seen a surge in antisemitic and Islamaphobic incidents. Abdullah says his mother isn’t a fan of the fundraising campaign and is nervous that he is opening himself up to criticism and Islamaphobia. However, Abdullah says his Islamic faith beckoned him toward helping the humanitarian efforts.
While Abdullah is compelled to hold fundraisers, other restaurant owners are reluctant to act publicly. One public relations professional tells Eater Chicago they advised a client to refrain from making personal statements about the conflict using their restaurant’s social media accounts. Still, some in the restaurant industry, including those at S2 Grille, have utilized their platforms to speak out.
Abdullah wants to bring more Palestinian and Jewish restaurants together. He mentions the strip along Harlem Avenue in suburban Bridgeview, a community known as Little Palestine, where a cluster of Palestinian-owned restaurants stand. He wants to reach out.
“I think the reality is there are ways to speak about this and maintain connection with human beings if the right communities and people come together,” Abdullah says.
Ceasefire November at Cedars Mediterranean Kitchen, 1206 E. 53rd Street, every Wednesday in November.