From refugee to restaurateur: Med Deli owner creates community

By Kate Carroll

 “The older you get, the more you remember”

A crowd gathered in anticipation under the olive trees outside the Rafedya refugee camp in the West Bank.

Seven-year-old Jamil Kadoura watched from the outskirts with his mother. It was 1967, and the Israeli-Arab war had forced Kadoura’s family out of their home in Jerusalem. 

In their makeshift blanket-tent, Kadoura and his mother strategized over how to get their hands on a bag of food from the upcoming United Nations supply drop-off. 

Kadoura’s mother sent him into the crowd as the sounds of tires approached.

When the van doors slid open, chaos commenced. While bags of food flew through the air, Kadoura found himself underneath a stampede. 

“Hey, get away! There’s a child on the ground!” an older man in the crowd shouted.

He pulled Kadoura out from the trampling while the rest of the crowd continued. 

“It’s funny, the older you get, the more you remember your childhood,” the now 62-year-old Kadoura said. “You’ll realize that later in life.” 

Twelve chairs, six tables

 He reminisced from a table in the Chapel Hill location of his restaurant, Mediterranean Deli and Catering, while his employees prepared for a busy lunch service. The locals just call the place ‘Med Deli.’

There’s still food flying, but today it’s bags of pita for a catering order. There are still vans, but Kadoura owns them — nine of them, to be exact. 

The Arab-Israeli war ebbed throughout Kadoura’s childhood. He attended United Nations refugee schools in the West Bank and Israel-occupied Jerusalem before deciding to travel to the U.S. after high school to continue his education.

At 18 years old, Kadoura landed in Minneapolis, M.N.; he had a nephew living there. 

It was early December, and from the plane, Kadoura could see that a heavy blanket of snow covered the ground. 

“I look out the window,” Kadoura said. “And I said ‘oh, you are kidding. I’m not coming to live here.’” 

He was wearing a T-shirt. 

Kadoura enrolled in the Minnesota School of Business and worked in hospitality to pay for school. After several promotions, he decided not to finish school and instead invested his time in the food and beverage industry. 

A promotion brought him to Durham, N.C., where he worked as a food and beverage director for several hotels — the highest position in the game.

His friends warned him about the South for its conservatism and prejudice. 

“I just make myself not see it,” Kadoura said. “Because if you see it, you keep thinking about it, you don’t go anywhere in life.”

After meeting his wife, Angela, and settling into the area, Kadoura was ready to run his own business.

In 1992, with $16,000 of starter money, Kadoura opened the first Med Deli on West Franklin St. in Chapel Hill. It had 12 chairs, six tables and one six-foot deli case. 

“Everything that the business made, I put it back in the business,” Kadoura said. 

Now, Med Deli has a booming catering business and three restaurant locations with many more tables, chairs, and deli cases. Kadoura said he wouldn’t be where he is today without the support he found in Chapel Hill. 

“I call on the community, the community comes”

 “I started getting to know the community,” he said. “I can honestly tell you, this is one of the greatest communities. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else, and I don’t want to raise my kids anywhere else.”

As soon as Kadoura started seeing success at Med Deli, he knew it was time to give back. 

“I think that living in the refugee camp has a lot to do with it — with all my old memories of people running to save the poor people with catastrophic problems,” Kadoura said. “I think it has something to do with the people who helped me before, because automatically, you want to give, too.”

In addition to supporting local charities and student groups, Kadoura and his team have been organizing larger fundraisers for refugees and crisis relief for years now. Most recently, Med Deli hosted a fundraiser following the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria. 

“I call on the community, the community comes,” Kadoura said. “People trust us, and people value us, and people just love us, and we love them. So whenever I do a fundraiser, they just swarm the place.” 

The one-day fundraiser raised $30,000 for those affected by the earthquakes.

“He said, ‘I’m donating all of the sales. A hundred percent of the sales for the whole day,’” Catering director Liz Coughlin said. “I mean, literally, he didn’t even think about it five minutes before it came out.”

Before Kadoura hires a new employee, he always gives them the same advice. 

“Don’t work here because you want to stay here the rest of your life.” 

Many of Kadoura’s employees are also immigrants. He hopes that the community at Med Deli will enable them to build a stronger future for themselves.

“Our employees are paid well, but they need more than that,” Kadoura said. “They need opportunities in life. They need a coach that can advise them and show them the way.”

For Kadoura, that means signing a 10-year lease to help his chef of 14 years open his own restaurant.

It also means hiring a homeless man who came in for meals and welcoming him into his own home. 

It means setting up meetings with a Spanish-speaking realtor to help long-time employees to buy a home of their own.

“That, I think, comes from an individual themselves, which is me, myself,” he said. “It doesn’t come from being a business, it comes from you as a person.”

He shares his spirit of generosity with his employees, including his 24-year-old daughter Ambara, who is learning the ropes of the business after graduating college. 

“It’s always important to just give,” Ambara Kadoura said. “I really believe that’s the biggest thing. I swear to God, he instilled that in me and my siblings. And you know, it’s always gotten us so far.” 

At 62, Jamil Kadoura is still working every day, but he’s happy to take a backseat to his younger employees. 

“They all kill me now,” he said. “I go to the back there and they go ‘Patrón, get out of the way!’ Like, I’m too slow for them.”

Kadoura got up from the table while employees carrying trays of hummus and tzatziki paraded out to a catering van. 

Before returning to work, Kadoura had one request.

“Before you leave, I want to get you some lunch,” he said. “And make sure you don’t leave without it.”

Edited by Mattie Collins and Katie Lin