Three migrant families stay at Luther Memorial Church, 2500 W. Wilson Ave. and cook for other migrants at the 17th District station. Credit: Jacqueline Cardenas/ Block Club Chicago

LINCOLN SQUARE — From their temporary homes inside a North Side church, three families from Venezuela are preparing meals from their home country to feed and nourish not only themselves but also asylum seekers staying at a nearby police station.

Since July, the families staying at Luther Memorial Church, 2500 W. Wilson Ave., have cooked more than 3,000 meals for other migrants, said Linda Nguyen, lead volunteer at the church.

The 33rd Ward Community Care Collective, a volunteer-run grassroots coalition, has led the efforts by collecting donations and delivering the home-cooked meals — 80 to 100 meals a day — to migrants staying at the Albany Park (17th) Police District station, 4650 N. Pulaski Road.

While volunteers coordinate the meal drive, the migrant families at the church stay busy preparing meals that give fellow asylum seekers a taste of their home cuisine.

“I focus on making good food that they will like, and that they are content having a full stomach,” said Ysleny Carolina Brito, 33, who had stayed with her family at the police station for two weeks before moving into the church. “We don’t do this out of obligation … I do this out of love, most of all for the kids.”

Ysleny Carolina Brito, 33, washing dishes in the kitchen of Luther Memorial Church, 2500 W. Wilson Ave. Credit: Jacqueline Cardenas/ Block Club Chicago

After Nguyen and her husband saw the living conditions in the police stations where migrants were staying, they began attending meetings in April with the 33rd Ward care collective, organized by the office of Ald. Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez (33rd), Nguyen said.

There, they proposed that the church open its doors to the migrants. By May, the church had taken in three families, including Brito’s.

Brito, a mother of three, said she is grateful she can cook for others because she knows firsthand that during a migrant’s journey to the United States, “there are days you don’t eat.”

She said her goal is to make people “feel at home” by preparing traditional foods they are familiar with, like arepas.

Brito’s husband, Edward Alexander Piamo, 38, also enjoys cooking at the church because he likes to “collaborate with people who are in need.”

“I like helping immigrants because I am an immigrant, too,” he said in Spanish.

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Piamo said he and his family walked up to 10 miles every day with little food or water — an experience he said was “traumatizing for my kids” — before arriving in Texas, where they were given plane tickets to Chicago.

When Piamo isn’t cooking, he helps a contractor with house repairs, painting and other work, he said.

“As long as I am doing something and earning money for my kids. [I want] to give back to them after experiencing what they did on the journey, which was incredibly difficult,” he said.

Migrants Step Up In Kitchen

Venezuelan migrants staying at Luther Memorial Church, 2500 W. Wilson Ave. cook arepas and chicken soup. Credit: Jacqueline Cardenas/ Block Club Chicago

Neighbors wanting to support asylum seekers in police stations formed the 33rd Ward Community Care Collective in April as the city struggled to find shelters for new arrivals. The group now has over 150 volunteers who have donated food, blankets, clothing and more.

“There was no end in sight for people who were waiting at police stations,” Rodriguez-Sanchez said. “There were pregnant women. There were babies like, you know, 9 months old, a year old, and at that point we were not completely certain of when people were going to be able to be taken to shelters.”

The collective initially received food donations from Rincon Family Services, but after the organization ran out of funding to provide food, volunteers like Nguyen stepped in to cook through the Fourth of July weekend and keep a steady stream of meals going to migrants.

“We told the families [at Luther Church] we would be in the kitchen and if they could help me, it would be great. But they completely stepped up and took over the cooking project,” Nguyen said.

Volunteers, community members and local pantries like The Friendship Center Food Pantry, Fight 2 Feed, and Common Pantry donate food that Brito and others use to cook. Mutual aid organizations also donate money that goes toward buying ingredients.

“Not only are they fed and nourished but that they have a sense of nostalgia … because the food is different here, right?” Nguyen said. “When they get it, people at the precinct say, ‘A Venezuelan made this arepa, I know it, I can taste it.’ It gives them pride too … On those really hard days, a taste of home helps get you through those moments.”

With six adults and 10 children staying at the church, migrants have established their own routine, taking turns cooking Monday through Saturday.

“It feels good to help people from my country,” Brito said in Spanish.

A sign that reads “We love our kitchen and love to share it! Please clean up,” inside of Inside of Luther Memorial Church, 2500 W. Wilson Ave.

Nguyen said volunteers never had a “tried-and-true plan” to help migrants but found their way “with the right amount of effort and love.”

Nguyen struggled with food insecurity growing up and remembers how volunteers helped her family when they fled Vietnam and came to the United States in 1982, she said. The efforts of volunteers shaped the “life of service” she lives today, Nguyen said.

In addition to Luther Memorial Church, care collective volunteers have coordinated support efforts at Christ Lutheran Church, 3253 W. Wilson Ave. in Albany Park, where five other migrant families are staying.

Those interested in volunteering with the 33rd Ward Community Care Collective can fill out an online form here. If you would like to donate, you can do so here.

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