One of the things I love about living in the Warren-Youngstown area is the incredible ethnic diversity. Where else can you get Polish, Hungarian, Serbian, Greek, German, Middle Eastern, Southern American and Latino cuisine all in one area?
A favorite cuisine of mine is from the other side of the Mediterranean; namely along the North African coast and the Middle East. Happily, Middle Eastern restaurants like Goodies in Howland, Zenobia in Canfield and Jerusalem Foods in Niles are plentiful in our area.
Arab-Americans here in the Mahoning-Shenango valleys are committed to peace and brotherhood. As early as the 1950s, Arab-Americans here formed a social organization, the Arab-American Community Center. Its purpose was to help newly arriving Arabs become American citizens and to promote their customs and culture much the way the Eastern European immigrants had done.
Arabs arriving in the area looked for opportunities for work in education, retail stores and the steel mills. Their sons and daughters went on to distinguish themselves in fields like medicine, law, engineering and education as well as in the American Armed Forces.
The Arab-American Community Center is open to everyone. Members are made up of Muslims as well as Christians, who respect each other and engage in secular, not religious, activities.
They have undertaken a scholarship fund to help young people to attend Youngstown State University, and they routinely participate in the yearly International Festival held at Youngstown State. They have booths at the Canfield Fair, and all profits go into doing good works like holding dinners after funerals for members' families at no charge.
They have fed as many as 250 people at a time this way. According to Moussa Kassis of Girard, former president of the group, ''the Arab-American Community Center was established to fully integrate its members into the larger society, while playing a major role in the education system both locally and nationally.'' I remember learning in school that the Arabs of old were master mathematicians, astronomers and scientists.
One of the fun activities enjoyed by Arab-Americans is a ''Hafli'' (pronounced Huff-lee) which is the Arabic word for party. A typical Hafli serves to celebrate Arab culture by featuring Arabic music, dance and, of course, food.
A Hafli is being sponsored by St. Mark Antiochian Orthodox Church in Liberty. The Antiochian Orthodox Church was established in this country in the early 1900s by Syrian refugees who wanted to totally assimilate and therefore got permission to hold their services in English.
This fact has brought people of all nationalities to the church as a whole, and St. Mark is no exception. Its members are made up of Arab-Americans, Romanian-Americans, Irish-Americans and Greek-Americans, to name just a few. Since many in its congregation are Syrian, Palestinian and Lebanese, there was interest in holding a Hafli sponsored by the church.
Church members Cristine Cavalier of Youngstown and Stephanie Jones of Warren had traveled in the past to Cleveland or Pittsburgh to take part in a Hafli. They decided it was time for the Greater Youngstown area to have a Hafli of its own. The two formed a committee and held the first Hafli last October.
There was such a great response that this year they have moved it to a bigger venue; St. Ann's Ukrainian Church Parish Hall on the corner of Raccoon and Kirk roads in Austintown. The menu will include a buffet with lamb or chicken-on-a-rod, stuffed grape leaves, rice pilaf, kibbe (spiced ground lamb patty), spinach pies, meat pies, hummus, tabouli and much, much more. There will also be a wonderful selection of ethnic desserts. The special musical guest is Tony Eid and his band from Cleveland.
So bring your culinary curiosity and put on your dancing shoes. Plan to experience a Hafli first hand. My husband and I hope to see you there.
O'Connor is a Brookfield resident.