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Middle East by way of Minnesota: scenes from the St. George Middle Eastern Festival

The tenth annual St. George Middle Eastern Festival took over the grounds of St. George Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church in West St. Paul over the weekend, transporting all concerned to the roots of the planet’s oldest worshipping traditions. Over the course of three days, festival-goers gorged on fried bread, falafel, roasted lamb, beef, and chicken; gyros, tabouli, baklava, and more; music from the John Khoury Band; dance routines from the St. George Dabke Dance Troupe, and, yes, camel rides courtesy of Nick the camel, straight outta Brainerd.

The first Syrian and Lebanese immigrants landed in Minnesota in the 1890s, primarily on St. Paul’s West Side, and St. George was founded in 1913. These days, as wars rage in the Middle East, concurrent with the Trump administration travel ban on primarily Muslim countries, including Syria. All of which was on the minds of the St. George churchgoers over the weekend, along with a new urgency to their mission of faith. MinnPost took in the fest, in photos and interviews:

MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh

Souad Bchara and Yumna Jon
“These are stuffed grape leaves, with ground lamb, rice, salt and pepper, and the leaves are off the grape vine,” said Jon. “I was the first immigrant from my family, I came from Syria. I got married to my husband who lived here, and then I applied for the rest of my siblings and my mom and dad, because I was homesick and I wanted them to be with me. That was 1988, and at that time there were no problems in Syria, and Syria was a heaven place to live in for us.

“It was like Little Italy, really laid back. You go to work at 8 in the morning and come back at 2:30, so it’s very different from the United States. You have late lunches and late dinners and the families have time to visit with each other, and work does not take all your day and all your life. We’re a family of nine, and they’re all here now, and at least I know my family is in better shape and I don’t have to worry about if they have enough to eat, or electricity, or are their basic needs being met. Now, as you know, it’s not the same. It’s not an easy situation like it used to be. It’s still a beautiful place to be.”

MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh

“Our parents were born in Syria,” said Sophie Haddad (center), about her and her sister/fellow dancer Mary (third from right). “They came here in 1999. We were born here, we went to Syria 10 years ago, and it’s a really beautiful country and the history of it is really amazing, but now it’s really hard. Cities are being destroyed. Our hometowns, Raqqa and Damascus, are demolished. Lots of our family are still stuck there, and dancing is a good way to bring publicity to our church.”

MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh

Father Duane Pederson
“I’m assigned to this parish. Some people think I’m retired, and I guess at age 80 they might think that. The festival is important because the roots of the orthodox church is in the Middle East, and it’s very important in this day and time to know that there’s another side to the Middle East other than the mess that’s going on over there now. It’s a wonderful culture.”

MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh

Father John Chagnon and Father Thomas Begly
“We have a fair number of first-generation immigrants here and our archdiocese is heavily active in refugee work,” said Chagnon. “There’s also the International Orthodox Christian Charities, we go into Syria and provide money back to Syria for food and shelter. Many churches in our archdiocese would be very welcoming to having refugees come. I think there’s been a conspicuous shortage of Christian refugees coming from Syria, and I don’t know if it’s the immigration policies or how that’s being handled, but we’d be ready to accept them if they were ready to come.

“Syria is a multi-religious country, so there’s various kinds of Islam there. The Assad regime is a dictatorship, and yet because President Assad is from a minority sect of Islam, he’s actually been very protective of the Christian population — he’s a dictator, no question about it, but he’s a secular dictator — so for the most part, the Christian population of Syria, which is about 10 or 12 percent, has been protected and have been able to thrive.

“Our patriarch lives in Damascus, and we have institutions, hospitals, charities, monasteries, and [other] things in the country. People don’t know that there are vast numbers of Christians in the Middle East who are of Arabic origin. People are sometimes very surprised, because they assume that everyone who comes from Syria or Jordan or Lebanon is in fact a Muslim. It’s not monolithic, and we’ll give aid if they want it.

“The efforts to destabilize and change the regime there have been disastrous for the Christians. For the most part, the Islamic population in Syria and the Christian population got along just fine. That’s all changed, so the Syrian Christian population has been devastated, and we do what we can here to make sure that there’s aid and things that flow back to try to deal with the human fall-out of that.

“It touches our first-generation immigrants who are here very deeply, because it’s not abstract to them. What happens in Syria is literally happening to their fathers, their brothers, their family, and it oftentimes is not very pleasant. There are people in this church who go back and forth routinely to Syria, and they have close family there. Properties have been taken, churches have been destroyed.”

MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh

Nick Nachreiner and Nick the camel
“He’s 15 years old. I’ve worked with him for 14 years ago, training him and raising him, and we’ve been bringing Nick from the zoo in Brainerd for ten years. The camel is pretty much the desert taxi, he’s pretty much the only animal who can handle this heat, but he does really well here in Minnesota in both the heat and cold.”

MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh

Mary Rudquist
“My original name is Kamadati, I’m from Israel, Bethlehem. What I find at St. George is love. The feeling here is camaraderie and love and when we do all this work, it doesn’t feel like work, it feels like love. It really is wonderful. This morning we made 400 pounds of the farani (Syrian bread). I’m 85, and we have 90 year olds, and for all of us, lifting 25 pound bags of flour and mixing dough… all that work keeps them alive. To sit at home and knit and twiddle your thumbs, it’s just not enough.”

MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh

Vicky Michaels
“The money we raise goes to help our church, and we give back to the local community and Focus America and Neighbors in South St. Paul that help clothe and feed the kids in our community, and we’ve also been sending money for Syrian relief. A lot of our people are from Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, the Middle East, and there are a lot of people here who have lost their homes and everything, so we try to send money to the church there and help on the ground. We’re a small church, trying to pull off a festival like this, and so our local friends from St. Mary’s Greek Church and St. George Greek church, all sent people to help us, and if you look around, there’s people from the Russian church and people from the Greek church, and they’re all here helping us make gyros and all sorts of other food.”

MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh

Rana and Jumana Jubran
“We’re 100 percent Palestinian, our parents are from Palestine, and we’ve gone to St. George since we were little,” said Jumana. “We go back to Palestine as often as possible, because our extended family is there, and I always feel safe and at home and I feel like what’s on the news is completely different from what we know. Being here is like being with family. It’s the same music we grew up listening to, the same food, and it’s a fun weekend.”

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