When Khalis Noori fled his home in Afghanistan two years ago, he had one goal: to get his family away from the Taliban.
Starting a business in the U.S. to help and hire refugees such as himself never crossed his mind.
“I would have laughed,” he said, when asked about considering a business in America back then.
“But I used to hear about the American dream from the movies,” he told WTOP. “I see that there is a reality behind the concept. And it has a bigger meaning than just those two words.”
What he thought was impossible is now brimming with opportunity. My Kabul, Noori’s authentic Afghan restaurant in Laurel, Maryland, opened on May 7.
He saw a need for the restaurant after arriving in the U.S. and being hired as a field operations director for Lutheran Social Services, a nonprofit that assists refugees and those seeking asylum. His team settled more than 1,400 Afghans in Northern Virginia. He said the hardest part about the job was finding transportation and employment for newcomers.
How food brings people together
That’s when he got the idea to open My Kabul. It has a dual mission to help and hire as many newly arrived Afghans as possible, offering them a place to meet and get support in a country that is unfamiliar.
“Food brings people together. And My Kabul is here just for that,” he said. “It’s a spot for people to come together and talk about what they have been through. It’s also where refugees can avoid the isolation that many of them are facing at the moment.”
The menu offers a taste of home for Afghan refugees and Americans who also enjoy the cuisine, Noori said.
Customers can order appetizer plates of Mantu, dumplings filled with spiced minced beef and topped with garlic-infused yogurt. Main dishes include favorites like Qabuli Palau, seasoned rice and lamb cubes tossed with sweet raisins, carrots and almonds. To cap off the meal, the dessert menu highlights Sheer Yakh, Afghan ice cream topped with toasted pistachios.
Noori recounted the story of a woman who visited the restaurant a few weeks ago. Rescue crews had evacuated her out of Afghanistan without her children. In the restaurant, she ordered the ice cream and was instantly homesick.
“The minute she saw it and saw us, she couldn’t stop crying,” Noori said of the frozen dessert. “And she just sat and talked with me about everything she’s gone through.”
The menu, service and décor are all authentic because the chef and wait staff are all refugees who left their home country when the Taliban took over in 2021.
“All the dishes are served the way they’re served back in Afghanistan,” he said. “It’s cooked exactly the same.”
50% discount for refugees
The restaurant offers a hefty 50% discount to all refugees who visit, not just Afghan newcomers.
Noori said he is also looking for donations to help with settlement efforts and a second My Kabul location in Northern Virginia.
Also on his to-do list: hiring a team to help refugees file forms to stay in the U.S. Afghan evacuees were given a two-year temporary status to live and work in America. The term expires in a few months, he said.
“We are all really worried,” he said. “They will have to submit forms to extend their legal status to live here legally. If not, that’s going to have really bad consequences.”
The restaurant is hosting a welcome dinner to honor and support recently arrived refugees on Thursday night, Noori said. The event is free, but an RSVP is required. Find out more information here.