Dining for Justice will be a walk-around tasting event on December 9 to raise money for asylum seekers. 
Dining for Justice
Credit: Courtesy of Jonathan Forgash

Funding (and feeding) activism isn't cheap, so next week chefs, restaurants, and small businesses are donating their time, skills, and supplies to raise money for an urgent cause. Organized by Jonathan Forgash of Queens Dinner Club, the event called Dining for Justice will benefit Immigrant Families Together (IFT), a grassroots, Queens-grown national organization that emerged this past spring in response to the zero tolerance policy that led to mass immigrant family separations.

Dining for Justice will be a walk-around tasting event on Sunday, December 9 at Sound River Studios, featuring 16 stations that serve bites from places like Fletchers BBQ, M Wells, Kurry Qulture, Chef’s Consortium, Tanabel (itself staffed by refugees), Hill Country, Try Caviar, and more. Tickets cost $75 and include five raffle tickets with prizes like signed cookbooks, restaurant gift certificates, food tours, and original art. The event has already raised around $7,000, but tickets are still available and they’re hoping to hit over $10,000 with additional ticket sales, plus raffle and auction sales.

The money raised will go to IFT’s general rapid response fund, which pays to bond out separated asylum seekers (the average bond is $9,000, but can cost as much as $25,000) and to pay for living expenses.

IFT was born in June when writer, mom of three, and former social worker Julie Schwietert Collazo realized that she had a shot at helping reunite at least one family. So she got to work to release Yeni Gonzalez, whose lawyer she’d heard on the radio, from an ICE detention in Arizona and help unite her with her three young kids, who had been transferred to New York. Collazo started a GoFundMe to raise the $7,500 necessary to bond out Gonzalez—and quickly crowd-funded over $50,000.

As volunteers and donors across the country stepped forward to help, IFT took shape. They bonded out Gonzalez, organized a network of drivers to transport her in spurts across the country, assisted in getting her kids back, and have contributed to housing, food, doctors appointments, and anything else—emotionally and financially—an asylum-seeking family in a foreign country might need. Then they got to work helping the next family; IFT has since bonded out over 50 individuals and reunited them with their children.

For Queens-based chef Jonathan Forgash, food is all about bringing communities together and providing emotional, as well as physical, nourishment. Which is why when he heard about Collazo’s work with IFT, he knew he had to get involved. “He’s been around from the get-go, and he’s always been really proactive about reaching out to me and…saying this is what I bring to the table, quite literally,” says Collazo.

Though Forgash spent two decades catering to the stars (literally: his company, Star Struck Catering fed clients ranging from Victoria’s Secret to Food Network shows), in recent years he pivoted to what he calls “food with emotional content,” cooking for people with cancer and their caregivers. Collazo says that his understanding of the delicate interplay between food and trauma has been a great asset as he’s cooked for families, arranged for meal deliveries, bought groceries, and generally tried to heal and comfort via food.

For the past two and a half years, Forgash has also run Queens Dinner Club, a passion project with the goal of “introducing our customers, our members, to the multicultural community of Queens through their foods… It was the idea of bringing together two communities, which I’m all about that, it’s a big deal for me,” he says.

It occurred to Fogash that he could bring together even more communities by creating a partnership between Queens Dinner Club and IFT, and Dining for Justice was conceived. Having been in Astoria since 1995, Fogash has developed deep roots in the community and called on his peers to help. “I don’t ask for much, and I don’t really believe in asking for free, but every single one of them said, 'I’ll give all of my time, effort, skills, for free—what else can we do?”

Through sponsorships and donations, nearly all of the overhead for the event has been covered, so 99% of the proceeds from the event will go straight to Immigrant Families Together.

“So under the best of circumstances you’re looking at as much as a year of not being able to support themselves,” says Collazo. “For me it was really important from the beginning of this project, it wasn’t just about raising the money to get a mom out of detention and bring her to her kids, it was really understanding ... that they were going to need support over the long haul. Like, how are you going to be here seeking asylum and trying to build a life for yourself if you can’t legally work?” IFT raised nearly $1 million in their first four months alone, and needs to keep the momentum going to continue supporting these families.

These days, says Collazo, the biggest expense is housing. In New York City alone, they are taking care of five families, three of which are in apartments IFT is paying for since asylum seekers can’t legally work until their asylum application has been filed for 180 days and then they’ve applied for a work authorization permit, which takes an additional few months.

Though not an overt part of the IFT mission, food has played a central role in their work, as refugees have fled situations with food insecurity or have reportedly faced withheld or rotten food in ICE detention centers. Often in Collazo's home—and usually after a number of days and GI issues—they can finally eat a comforting, home-cooked meal.

A few weeks ago Forgash and his family did a big shop for a recently settled Guatamalen asylum seeker and her children. “We simply dropped off some groceries and you would think we’d just saved this woman’s life from the hugs and the tears and the gratitude.”

“Cooking and food are more than calories,” continues Forgash. “It’s cooking with intention. Cooking for someone to make them smile, reconnect with good memories from childhood or events … This is culinary care.”

Those who are unable to attend but would like to contribute can buy a “virtual ticket,” which will go directly to IFT. “I’ve been saying that IFT and its supporters are displaying ‘this is what America looks like,’” says Forgash. It’s the America that he wants to live in.