“The minute I sit there, I feel like I’m still in it,” he said.
He has to remind himself that his niece Ayah is OK now, alhamdulillah. But everything is not OK for the families around him, and that’s why he goes back.
Twice in July, Durrah took a small team of IRUSA volunteers to the home-away-from-home where families live while their seriously ill children undergo treatment across the street at Johns Hopkins hospital. The home is called Children’s House Believe in Tomorrow, but many of the families have a hard time believing in tomorrow in the face of a potentially terminal illness.
“It’s family-style housing with common areas and kitchens for families who have kids undergoing some of the hardest treatments you can imagine, like organ transplants and chemotherapy,” he said. “These families become transplants themselves.”
The free housing allows the families to stay close to their children, but it’s still not easy. Each family has a small room. In the refrigerator, there are shelves with numbers that correspond to their room.
“It’s kind of like: if your house is on fire, what do you grab?” Durrah said.
They do have access to kitchen use for cooking, but most families can’t spare that much time away from their child’s bedside. And nobody is in a state of mind to cook anyway. Durrah remembers his mom staring at a can of soup when they were living there with his niece. He recalls that even opening the can looked like a monumental task in her state of fear and exhaustion.
“When we walk in there, often we’ll see family members staring out the windows, staring at their hands, and just mentally burnt out,” Durrah said. “They spend most of the day holding onto their kids’ hands,” Durrah said.
So when the IRUSA team arrives and starts cooking, it’s a huge relief.
“The whole home fills with the smell of food and fresh-baked cookies, and these families feel at home,” Durrah said.
For about two to two-and-a-half hours, then the team cooks up a wholesome meal from scratch, often using organic ingredients. They might make a couple of main dishes, a vegetable dish, a salad. And always cookies—both regular and gluten-free, because the families share with the children, and the children often have to adhere to special diets.
The team cooks twice as much food as necessary and packages extra food in BPA-free microwaveable boxes. The extra food isn’t leftovers from the buffet—it’s straight from the kitchen so there’s no chance of contamination in case the immune-compromised children eat it.
“They love our attention to detail,” Durrah says.
The team also packages up a few extra large trays to freeze for when families arrive in an emergency in the middle of the night, and they stock the pantry with canned foods and hygiene products.
One of Durrah’s specialties is beefaroni from scratch. The beefaroni has a story.
During one visit, a father was distraught because his child would not eat anything. The hospital staff had told him that if the boy didn’t start eating, he wouldn’t make it.
On a hunch, the father took a package of beefaroni to the hospital room and started eating it. His son looked up and said, “What is that? It looks good.”
“And that beefaroni—this is the father’s words, not mine—it saved his son’s life,” Durrah said. “Since that day, we never don’t make beefaroni.”
Durrah has the process down to a science. His team can cook a double-batch of food for 35 families using high quality—sometimes organic—ingredients for only $120. Once he has more storage space for pantry staples, he thinks he can reduce it to $100. Sometimes a business or family will sponsor a meal; sometimes he’ll pay for it himself.
After the team cooks, the families always insist that they sit down and eat with them. During Ramadan, the volunteers had to decline the invitation. “The families were in tears,” Durrah said. “They were like, ‘You’re here baking these cookies and cooking this food while you’re fasting—unbelievable.’”
Durrah knows what the families need because he’s been there with his niece Ayah, a cancer survivor who has been called a miracle girl for beating long odds, alhamdulillah. He hopes that her story can offer them hope.
“When we’re able to share her story, it helps us help them,” he said. “Last time, a father told us three separate times, you don’t know how much this means to me.”
Durrah tells his volunteers to expand their definition of families in need. When a parent doesn’t know if her child will live until tomorrow, Durrah considers that just as traumatic in a Baltimore hospital as it is on the streets of a war zone.
“No war did this—the war is across the street [in the hospital] because their kid is in a battle for their life,” he said. “If we’re able to serve them in Syria, we should be able to serve them here.”