How a Milwaukee Woman Is Building Bridges With Local Refugees

A Milwaukee woman aims to help local refugees with a unique series of dinners.

Twenty-five years of experience as a social worker combined with a flair for networking and an innate dedication to helping others are Kai Gardner-Mishlove’s guiding forces. Working locally, but thinking globally, she embraces “tikkun olam,” a directive of her Jewish faith meaning “to repair the world.” She volunteers to assist refugees with everything from finding housing to acquiring clothing and furniture. Last year, to show their appreciation, the families welcomed her into their homes.

“I was invited to participate in buna, an Ethiopian coffee ceremony. The Syrian families invited me in for mint tea. The Karen families [from Burma] invited me to community gatherings like children’s birthday parties and weddings.”

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Co-owner Greg León and TAB creator Kai Gardner- Mishlove.. Photo by Mouna Photography, Wisconsin Muslim Journal

Gardner-Mishlove was inspired by the generosity to do something bigger. “I had an ‘aha’ moment because of how delicious the food was. I knew we weren’t likely to find this in a Milwaukee restaurant.” As ideas percolated, she spoke to a friend with ties to the restaurant community. It didn’t take long for others to share her enthusiasm.

In 2019, the first Tables Across Borders (TAB) pop-up dinner was held at Milwaukee’s Amilinda. A married couple, Abebech Jima and Zerihun Tadesse, prepared an Ethiopian feast and shared elements of their culture with local foodies. Subsequent dinners have been held at The Tandem and Tricklebee Café.

Photo by Mouna Photography, Wisconsin Muslim Journal

Turning her kitchen over to refugee chefs for a TAB dinner didn’t faze The Tandem’s chef and owner, Caitlin Cullen, in the least. “They’ve lived in refugee camps for extended periods of time – they’ve gotten used to cooking for 60 people at a time. I knew they’d be able to knock it out of the park,” she recalls.

“Kai doesn’t get the recognition she de- serves,” Cullen adds. But Gardner-Mishlove was recently named a Milwaukee SHEro by the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, and the refugees repeatedly show their appreciation. “Abebech and Zerihun told me it was a dream come true to see American people appreciating their food and culture,” she says. “TAB is breaking down barriers, and it’s been wonderful to see the diversity of folks who come out to volunteer and to patronize the events.”

Photo by Mouna Photography, Wisconsin Muslim Journal

The upcoming TAB dinner schedule is to be determined. Find more information here.


This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s May issue. 

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