From Iraq to St. Elmo: a story of being lost, then found.

How far would you go to find home?

From Iraq to St. Elmo: a story of being lost, then found.
Jinan Alabid, Hummus Bowl, St. Elmo, Tennessee

Refugees for 17 years. Prison. Threats of regime violence. For the Alabid family, coming to Chattanooga was freedom from immeasurable fear. How to express gratitude?

They decided to open a restaurant. Then, another.

"I’m really glad that I came to Chattanooga; this is my home town. We are a part of this community. We love this city. Food is our language."

Note to our readers: Cherita Rice – co-owner and co-founder of Mad Priest Coffee Roasters on Broad St. – has been deeply involved in the immigrant and refugee communities here. Not long ago, she approached Food as a Verb with a beautiful story: Wahab and Jinan Alabid, the Iraqi couple who own The Hummus Bowl in St. Elmo and Kebobster in East Brainerd.

Partnering with photographer Julie Ellison, Cherita spent hours with the Alabids, receiving their story of survival and hope.

Food as a Verb is proud to offer their story.

All words by Cherita Rice. Photography by Julie Ellison.

It was a beautiful winter day when we arrived at The Hummus Bowl. Customers sat at cozy tables enjoying their lunch and the cheerful, plant-filled space. Jinan Alabid greeted us with dainty cups of steaming Arabic coffee, poured from an intricate silver coffee pot. The smells of cardamom and saffron floated up from the green coffee. 

I got the Gyro bowl with rice and salad, hummus and fresh pita, a hearty lunch with a party of flavors. I finished with their signature and well-known Baklava cheesecake.

Behind such an inviting, calming space, there is a story of immense challenge and beauty.

Wahab and Jinan Alabid – who own Kabob-ster on Gunbarrel Road and The Hummus Bowl in St. Elmo – were both born in Iraq, fell in love, raised a family and suffered from 17 years as refugees before moving to the US.

From the outside, they own and operate two successful family-run restaurants.

But the story behind those restaurants is one of twists and turns, plus a remarkable amount of perseverance and grit. 

It is story of entrepreneurship, family and food – woven together through the pain and uncertainty of refugee life.

In Wahab’s mind, the most important thing is to be with his family and keep them together.

“I want to sit where there is no danger and I can’t be separated from my family,” he says.

The Hummus Bowl, St. Elmo, Tennessee

17 Years as Refugees

Both Wahab, both in 1965, and Jinan, born in 1972, are from Basra, the second largest city in Iraq. During the Gulf War, they decided to flee Iraq as refugees and went from country to country, seeking asylum. Sometimes they traveled with documents, sometimes without, and they had visa issues constantly because tourist visas only were available for 30 days to six months.

There were consequences for overstaying on a visa – Wahab had to spend time in jail on numerous occasions.

“After 17 years of living as refugees, we felt so tired,” Jinan shared.

Jinan and Wahab Alabid, St. Elmo, Tennessee

“Everytime we tried to start our life over somewhere, it was very hard. But when the family is together, they help each other and become strong," Jinan said.

Their first son, Ahmed, was born in Iraq in 1992; their daughter, Maram, was born in 1994 in Jordan. Jinan struggled to be strong, keeping the kids, helping her husband and trying to find a place to settle down.

During these years, they lived in Jordan, Sudan and Syria. At one point, Wahab had to leave his family due to visa issues and spent more than three years separated from them in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, Vietnam, Pakistan and Egypt.

They had no cell phones, no WhatsApp. Alone with two young kids during this time, Jinan worked with tourist companies in Syria, and then at a private school. 

Finally, they were reunited and decided to move back to Iraq in 2003. War came again.

As their third child, a son named Kumail, was born, Wahab got a job as an interpreter with the British army and worked with an American petrol company – located on the American base in Basra – as an engineer, building schools, roads, and water treatment facilities. 

But it was still dangerous for the family – they were working for the enemies of the Iraqi regime. Wahab had to change his name and they had to keep moving from house to house.

“Every time you think you will be together as a family, then you need to pack up your clothes again; it was still unstable [in Iraq]. We couldn’t be honest with people about where Wahab was working. It was hard to make the kids understand what was happening,” Jinan recalled. 

Then a glimmer of hope.

There was a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program for anyone who worked for or on behalf of the US government in Iraq and Afghanistan. They applied. Then waited. And waited.

It took four years. 

Remembering that time, Jinan just said, “Oh my God.” It was a long time to wait, so long that they would often forget where they were in the process. Jinan went back to college for accounting during those years and graduated in 2011, right before they got their visas in 2012.

She had been trying to make the best of a hard situation and was looking forward to getting a job, but “the family is more important than my dreams,” she said resolutely. 

The pain and suffering weren't over. They were hesitant to come to the US after all they had seen about America in the news. They heard that America hated the Middle East and were unsure how they would be treated here. 

Jinan Alabid, The Hummus Bowl, St. Elmo, Tennessee

Coming to America was a huge culture shock. They were surprised that everything here was so green and people freely cut down trees; in Iraq, you would be detained for doing so. All the technology was hard to learn – there was public transportation, bank accounts, credit cards, doctor’s appointments, mail. It was especially hard for Jinan because women were treated so differently here and, often, she was shy in public. 

They suffered depression. Language, culture, even mentality – it was all otherworldly different.

“Shame is different here, honor is different. Respect is different. It took us years to learn,” Wahab said.

One example: Wahab recalled that he struggled because in Iraq you don’t shake a woman’s hand. But here?

“So, do I shake her hand or not? Do I smile at her or not? Also the Americans, they like hugs,” he laughed.  

Wahab got a job at Amazon, and Jinan eventually got a job at Kebobster. Later, Wahab got a job working night shift as quality control for Halal practices at Koch Foods and then Pilgrim’s Pride.

“I want to sit where there is no danger and I can’t be separated from my family."

Today, he continues this work five nights a week in addition to running the restaurants.

Slowly, they became more comfortable here; after three years, they felt like they were adopted into the culture. 

“America has given us so much freedom. It’s a very great country with very great people. They are really opposite from what we were seeing [back home in Iraq]. American people are alive people, really alive,” Wahab exclaimed. 

Food as a Verb proudly thanks Lupi's, our sustaining partner, for its generous support.

For more than 25 years, Lupi's has served locally-sourced, creatively made and award-winningly delicious pizza pies from five nearby locations.

Becoming Restaurateurs

As a refugee, Wahab often worked in restaurants. In 2017, when he decided to start his entrepreneurship journey in Chattanooga, the idea formed:

Food is a skill we have that we can use; this is something that we know.

The Alabids come from a culture of cooking in the Middle East and their oldest son, Ahmed, went to culinary school here. After many years apart when they were refugees, the Alabids found that working together as a family and keeping the family together was a huge motivation for Wahab to start a food business. 

“America has given us so much freedom. It’s a very great country with very great people."

Looking around Chattanooga, he saw all kinds of cuisines: Indian, Mexican, Asian. Why not add Middle Eastern to the mix?

Their dream began with Jinan’s Kitchen, a catering company that they ran for almost four years. A friend of theirs – and my husband – Michael Rice of Mad Priest Coffee Roasters, helped them launch their business, create a menu and host their launch event in 2017.

“He encouraged us that we can do it, he gave us a push, gave us an opportunity,” Wahab said.

At An Evening in Iraq, the formal dinner that launched Jinan's Kitchen, they cooked their Middle Eastern food for a sold out crowd at the The Camp House in downtown Chattanooga.

Slowly the business grew, catering business lunches and pop-up events all around Chattanooga. During Covid, the catering industry stopped abruptly; they had to pivot. 

Jinan Alabid, The Hummus Bowl, St. Elmo, Tennessee

Two years ago, the owner of Kabob-ster approached them to buy the business. Jinan had worked there for three years when they first arrived here and was familiar with the business.

Buying an established business has its own challenges. They shared with clientele a new, more authentically Middle Eastern menu, but earning customers trust again is hard. Their son Ahmed now runs Kabob-ster, incorporating unique specials that pay homage to their home in Iraq.

“The food business is hard, especially post-Covid," Wahab said. "The reason I have survived until now is because my family is working together.”

Jinan Alabid, The Hummus Bowl, St. Elmo, Tennessee

Enter The Hummus Bowl, which they opened four months ago. Wahab targeted downtown because he wanted to be part of the growth of the city.

This time, he had the opportunity to build a space from the ground up completely their own. With no outside investment, he did everything from planning the space to all the work of the build out – including woodworking and painting. 

Targeting a younger generation, he designed a more approachable menu where you could build your own bowl. The Hummus Bowl is focused on more general Mediterranean food.

“Discover the elevated flavors of the Mediterranean," their website declares, promising meals that are “fast casual dining."

“The community has been so supportive and made it successful,” Wahab said.

Here in St. Elmo, the clientele is receptive and encouraging. He finds them to be more open-minded to trying new things.

“People here have traveled outside the US, and they know the difference between kofta and shawarma,” he smiled. 

Their American Dream Becomes Reality

It has been their dream to be together as a family and to work together. They were struggling so much being apart for years, and now they want to work together in their family business. (Though their daughter isn’t working with them right now, she hopes to in the future.)

They want to share their food with their new community.

“From our culture, food is very important … when you welcome people, it’s like a language,” Jinan said.

Wahab wants to give Chattanooga another option to the current culinary choices.

“America is a big mosaic. I want to be one color in this mosaic,” he said.

Though their dream is about food, it’s also about welcoming other new families to Chattanooga. 

When they first came here through Bridge Refugee Services, they were settled in Ooltewah and got connected with the Adventist community out there. They felt at home with the similarities between their two religions. Leaders at Bridge asked them if they would help welcome other Iraqi families who came to Chattanooga.

In 2016 they formed the Adventist Muslim Friendship Association. Over the years, they’ve offered programming for women and children, including summer camps, English classes, and worked to open a branch of the nonprofit Peace of Thread. 

There are currently only 25 families in the Iraqi community here, the Alabids say, and many Arabic families that come to Chattanooga as refugees have been relocating to other cities. 

“I’m really glad that I came to Chattanooga; this is my home town. We are a part of this community. We love this city. Food is our language, as my wife says. We are one family. The community has helped so much,” Wahab says, smiling.

The Hummus Bowl, St. Elmo, Tennessee

Their ultimate goal is sharing their food with the community and having their family work together. Their goals are realized.

“Almost,” Jinan replied.

Her dream is to open a vegetarian + vegan cafe and coffee shop in Ooltewah. And pack it with books, lots of books, because she has loved books since she was little. Will this happen?

Inshallah, they say together.

Just then, some customers, having finished their meal, walked over to greet Wahab and Jinan.

“Thank you for feeding us!” they said.

Many in Chattanooga echo this sentiment. 

Jinan Alabid, The Hummus Bowl, St. Elmo, Tennessee

Words by Cherita Rice. Contact Cherita at

Images by Julie Ellison.

Design by Alex DeHart.

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