On the morning of November 14th, 2018, Manna Samuel arrives at Merhaba Shawarma four hours before it opens to begin her day. She readies the restaurant for the shift ahead, preparing for the next twelve hours that she will carry on her shoulders alone. Merhaba Shawarma is quite literally a one-woman show.
This rainy morning, however, is unlike those that have come before. The atmosphere is bright, happy, and full of excitement. On this particular morning, the UN unanimously voted to lift the nine-year-long sanctions that had been imposed on Eritrea, Manna’s home country. A celebration of food, dance, and patriotism lie ahead. But before the festivities begin, Manna commits herself to Merhaba Shawarma as she has for the past six years.
“I came here as a refugee in 1983,” Manna says, and adds, “When refugees were not famous.” Her country, Eritrea, has been an area of conflict from the 1950s until July 2018. When she first came to America she worked in the banking industry, but in 2012 when fear of being laid off came into view, she bought Merhaba Shawarma from the restaurants previous owners and learned to cook Mediterranean food. “[The previous owners] trained us, but never gave us any of their recipes,” Manna admits, “So my friend and I had to come up with our own.”
Merhaba is an Arabic greeting that means “hello.” It’s commonly used in Eritrea. Merhaba Shawarma invites guests into that welcoming circle of a warm-climate culture. Manna explains that some patrons really care about customer service; they want a familiar greeting and genuine care. Others find themselves there for the food alone, “They could care less what you say,” Manna laughs. In her line of work, it’s necessary to read people when they walk through the door, a skill she learned long ago banking.
Merhaba Shawarma is located in what has come to be known as the most diverse square mile in America: Clarkston, Georgia. Clarkston became a refugee resettlement area in the 1990s and since that time hundreds of unique cultures have come to call the small town home. It’s a town that does things in a slightly unorthodox fashion, a little messy, and because of that is just a little more refreshing than your average suburban setting. Those who know Clarkston best, know that it is more of a community than a town- people are bound more by their relationships than by their shared zip codes.
Manna’s restaurant is not a large building. It sits on the corner of an intersection in the small downtown area. The parking is sparse, but many customers in the community walk there on foot. Despite serving Mediterranean food, Eritrea is paid homage to with the colors of the restaurant: blue, green, and red like the Eritrean flag. Indoors there are five small, crowded tables, a cooler full of drinks, and a bar behind which spools of meat are roasting. Despite the weather outdoors, Merhaba Shawarma is always warm. The walls are decorated with homemade art, thank you letters, and a sign that reads- “never trust a skinny chef,” while Manna, petite and slender, stands underneath shaving meat. One piece that stands out on the wall is a gift from a local music school. Students and community members painted a map of the world and added different words for “hello” to represent the various cultures of Clarkston.
At Merhaba Shawarma there’s usually a line. It’s customary to order first and Manna will bring the food to you when it’s ready. You eat, enjoy, grab a drink from the cooler, and pay on your way out. Manna recommended the Gyro wrap with Taziki sauce, her personal favorite, which we ordered. She also added that the Chicken Shawarma is the most popular dish. I had the Falafel wrap.
While preparing our food Manna yells out from behind the bar, “Do you want it spicy?” We say yes. Everything Manna makes is delicious. The spicy sauce added to any dish gives it a nice kick, but never too overwhelming. Each bite is filled with meat or, in my case, falafel and a generous amount of veggies, all wrapped in a fluffy grilled pita. These wraps are the comfort food of Clarkston. They’re not too exotic, not too spicy, and not too expensive. The seasoning is fragrant and all dishes are made to order. Walking inside and smelling the spices, warm bread, and roasting meat makes your stomach rumble in anticipation.
Not everything sold at Merhaba Shawarma is a wrap; most have a plate equivalent that comes with salad and fries or rice. You can also find plenty of sides ranging from stuffed grape leaves to hummus to baklava. Manna also serves Fuul, an Egyptian stew made of fava beans and perhaps the only dish Eritrea can claim on the menu.
“It’s not the food we make at home,” Manna says when I ask about the menu, but she adds that it’s a good fit for the community of Clarkston. I asked Manna if she would open an Eritrean restaurant if she had the opportunity and quickly she replies, “No.” Others have tried before and struggled to maintain their businesses. Her Mediterranean food is what attracts, in Manna’s words, “the refugee, the immigrant, and the American.” She wouldn’t want to market anything else.
Manna believes the food she serves at Merhaba Shawarma brings all walks of life through the door. The restaurant truly is a community hub. During our time there we saw college students, nurses, business professionals, and locals come through the door. An Eritrean grandmother came just to sit, not eat, with Manna and when Eritrean music started to play the two began dancing in the small kitchen space. College students spoke of their travels around the world. An American businessman came in and greeted Manna warmly, hugging her before ordering.
There we sat, Manna the refugee, my second-generation American companion, and myself. I asked Manna what she wanted families like each of ours to know and she told me, “Refugees are not monsters. We are hardworking and we have to do what we came here to do: be safe and work hard. It is not easy to establish yourself here as a refugee.” Manna admits she never felt uncomfortable with her position, until two years ago. The change in the American political climate has shifted Manna’s perspective as well. She described that nowadays you never know who will walk through your door- they may feel one way about your food, but have a very different opinion about your right to live in their country. Still, Manna greets everyone with a kind “Merhaba.” You would never know she had any fear.Now, more than ever, it is necessary for conversations with people like Manna Samuel to take place. Food brings people together. It teaches us about our families, our neighbors and the owners of our favorite corner restaurants. Food reminds us that we are not all so different from one another, and as Manna displays at Merhaba Shawarma, it is a gateway to community.
4188 E Ponce de Leon Ave,
Clarkston, GA 30021, US
About the Author
Laura is a Maine native who now lives in Atlanta. She loves exploring the different the stories food has to tell about culture, family, and life itself. You can find her on Instagram at: @elska