ELK GROVE VILLAGE — Michael “Chef Mike” Airhart has been feeding people across Chicago for years — and now he’s providing hot plates for migrants being bused in from Texas.
Texas has been sending busloads of refugees to Chicago with no communication about when they’ll arrive or what they’ll need, local officials have said. Organizers have had to scramble to find them shelter — sometimes putting them up in suburban hotels and motels — and provide them with basics such as health care and food.
When Airhart got a call from organizers asking him to provide a few dinners for migrants, he knew he had to do it, he said.
For dinner Tuesday and Wednesday, Airhart and his team drove his brightly colored bus to the parking lot of an Elk Grove Village hotel where some of the refugees are being sheltered. They set up a buffet-style meal with comfort food, along with donated clothes and groceries.
“This is our kind of town. This is what Chicago does for anybody who comes and needs help,” Airhart said.
Refugees lined up Wednesday night to get servings of fried chicken, potatoes, veggies and more, before hunkering down in the parking lot to eat. People chatted, laughing among themselves as they ate and took stock of the other items organizers were giving away.
Airhart has run Taste for the Homeless for nearly 10 years, giving free meals and clothes to people experiencing homelessness. The pandemic turned his operation into a mobile one, with him taking his van every day from neighborhood to neighborhood — any place where he knows people are congregating — to cook up good meals.
Pedro Gomez and his wife Lucy Gomez, the duo behind Elgin-based House of Restoration Community Outreach, said they reached out to Airhart about coming to feed the migrants and were thrilled when he agreed.
Lucy Gomez said the nonprofit has worked to provide the migrants with food, clothes, job opportunities and anything they else might need.
“We wanted to answer the call,” she said.
Two young men from Venezuela sitting on the curb outside their hotel said they are grateful for the home-cooked meal from Airhart’s team.
The two said being able to stay in the hotel has been like “a gift from God,” and donations have been super helpful as they build a life in the United States.
One man said many of the people he arrived in Chicago with had nearly nothing.
“Having things to choose is nice,” he said.
After two nights cooking for the hotel, Airhart doesn’t want to stop, he said. Cooking for people who need it is what he’s called to do, and “these are people who need that help and that love,” he said.
“I’m kind of worried because I don’t know if I can leave them now,” Airhart said. “I got to figure out … how I can just keep going and making sure that every day I can provide the best food? So I guess that’s my plan. Maybe tomorrow I might do chili?”
About 500 migrants from Central and South America have arrived via bus in Chicago since the end of August because of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s plan to send undocumented immigrants to Democrat-led cities in protest of federal border policies. People are being temporarily housed in Chicago and its suburbs.
State and local officials have repeatedly slammed Abbott’s move, saying he’s “sowing chaos” and treating the refugees inhumanely.
On Wednesday morning, Gov. JB Pritzker issued a state of disaster for the state so he can free up resources to better respond to the crisis.
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