After seeing what migrant asylum seekers were being fed at shelters, Faraz Sardharia took matters into his own hands.
“I walked in and I was like... there’s kids on the floor,’” he says of his first visit to the Chicago police station near Larabee and Division. “There’s like two brothers literally two years old with their teddy bear and their mom and dad next to them, helpless.”
The experience left a lasting impression on Sardharia. Over the last four months, the owner of Tandoor Char House has distanced himself from day-to-day operations at his three restaurants to focus on converting his River North location into a pantry of sorts, making culturally appropriate meals for the mostly South American migrants housed at police stations across the city. More than 14,000 migrants have arrived in Chicago over the last year or so.
“When you give somebody a meal, you allow them to smile for that moment,” Sardharia says.
Sardharia sits on the board of Chi Care, a nonprofit organization started in 2020 at the height of the pandemic. Through that group, he saw firsthand what the migrants face. He then partnered with the city of Chicago and the Greater Chicago Food Depository, Sardharia and his team have distributed more than 250,000 meals. The effort, funded by the depository, has expanded to lunch and dinner. They’re making nearly 5,000 meals a day.
Sardharia has visited the Inn of Chicago, the hotel converted into a shelter in Streeterville. Migrants staying at these makeshift shelters have endured moldy food and limited access to health care. Sardharia had the skills and the connections to help. He began speaking with migrants at the shelter to see what they needed, and Sardharia and his team of eight began doing research — most of the migrants are from Venezuela. Helped by mutual aid groups, Sardharia took input. Meals that initially started with fried chicken and fries have transitioned to arepas, empanadas, and more.
“That was a big learning experience,” he says. “With their support and their advice, we developed proper menus that are healthy, nutritious, and culturally appropriate.” Restaurants like Chicago’s Dog House, Cafe Bionda, and more have aided the effort.
Serving food migrants recognize won’t solve the larger challenges they face, but Sardharia says it helps to have a quality meal on a consistent basis.
The looming problem is the Chicago winter. Migrants are allowed to sleep in police stations at night but must remain outside during the day. Felipe Ospina, a Colombian native and consultant who works for Sysco, knows how harsh the transition is for those unfamiliar with Midwestern winters. After walking through a shelter in Pilsen, Ospina, who arrived in America 21 years ago as an asylum seeker from Bogota, left saddened. He imagined how families with young children journeyed through Central American jungles to Chicago: “I walked into this situation and it moved my entire world,” Ospina says.
Ospina alongside Sysco, Chicago Public Schools, Pilsen Food Pantry, Chicago Chefs Cook, and Todos Para Todos, launched a clothing drive that runs through Friday, October 20, where people can drop off new or gently used winter clothing for kids ages 3 to 17. Coats and shoes are what’s needed the most, but they’ll also take hats, scarves, and gloves. Restaurants like Big Kids, BLVD Steakhouse, Arepa George, and Prairie Grass Café are drop-off points. They’re looking for more restaurants to join.
Chicago Chefs Cook, the group of chefs brought together by Green City Market that have held a variety of charity events over the last two years, is holding an event at the Pendry Hotel on Thursday, November 9 to benefit the Pilsen Food Pantry to help the migrant community. Details on ChefsGiving are forthcoming.
Meanwhile, many restaurant owners want migrants to join their workforce, seeing a possible remedy to labor shortages. It’s a touchy proposition when it comes to power dynamics: Undocumented workers are often taken advantage of; without leverage, they’re afraid of speaking out or finding new jobs. They often remain in their current jobs even if bosses are abusive.
Earlier this week, President Biden decided to offer Temporary Protected Status to Venezuelans who arrived in America on or before July 31. The Illinois Restaurant Association, along with Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Mayor Brandon Johnson, praised the move. In August, the governor and mayor — along with other elected officials — lobbied the president to make such a move. The association is a founding member of the Illinois Business Immigration Coalition and has pushed for immigration reform and a path toward citizenship.
“Immigrants have always been the backbone of the hospitality industry and restaurants continue to be a home for immigrants from all over the world seeking to build a new life and achieve the American Dream,” reads part of an association statement sent to Eater Chicago.
Sardharia began his efforts in May and he wants more of his colleagues to show their support. While some have taken up the cause, others have been reluctant. The issue has become political thanks to the actions of the conservative governors of Texas and Florida who bussed and flew migrants from their states to Democratic cities like Chicago and New York. Some restaurant owners within Chicago share this view and are still recovering after law-and-order candidate Paul Vallas lost his mayoral bid to progressive Brandon Johnson.
Loop bar owners whose establishments are located near the shuttered Standard Club that’s been converted into a shelter spoke out in a recent Tribune story. The owner of Plymouth Restaurant & Rooftop claims migrants drink at a nearby park and harass women. George Liakopoulos, who also owns diners like Hollywood Grill in Bucktown and Griddle 24 in River North, says the behavior is keeping customers away. Liakopoulos says he supports helping the migrants but the city has to take action to protect businesses. Likewise, the owner of Brando’s Speakeasy, Brandon Vulpitta, tells the Trib some of his customers don’t feel safe.
The cost of migrant care has added about $200 million to the city’s projected budget deficit. The city recently signed a $29.3 million deal earlier this month with a controversial security company — GardaWorld has a history of mistreating migrants — for tents or “winterized base camps.” Migrants won’t be fed under the tents, but Sardharia says his group will be ready to help when the time comes.
Ospina is trying to ignore the outside noise. He sees these disagreements as minor obstacles.
“Where I came from, you’re used to this — you see speed bumps everywhere,” he says. “You just find a way around it.”