DeKalb’s Muslim Community and the Community Café
DeKalb’s Muslim Community and Community Café. This is the story of one afternoon spent at the restaurant and tea shop.
By Marissa Howard, Programs and Membership Coordinator.
As-Salaam-Alaikum is a greeting you will hear constantly at Community Café. This phrase is more than “hello.” The official Arabic translation is “peace be with you.” But for Muhammad Jihad, it’s a vibe, a feeling, a greeting.
For a Thursday at 1:00 pm, this place was bustling. The door was continually opened by customers: a group of middle school girls on a field trip, parents with strollers, an older couple in their finest. This place is the definition of community. And I never knew this community existed until a recommendation from Chef Asata Reid, speaker and presenter at our 2022 Black History Month Celebration.
The restaurant and tea shop, Springreens and Jayida Ché are located in an unassuming and hidden shopping center on the corner of Glenwood Avenue and Fayetteville Road in the East Lake Neighborhood, Atlanta. The shopping center is anchored by the Atlanta Masjid of Al-Islam mosque.
I am here for an oral history interview with Muhammad Jihad, the owner of Springreens, but his interview was just the beginning. Springreens is a Soul Food restaurant that specializes in healthy, halal, kosher, and vegetarian food.
The hot bar is filled with steaming trays of bright yellow cabbage, crisp garlicky green beans, sweet potatoes, and (we all know it’s not a veggie but it’s essentially one) mac and cheese. I grab a sampler plate of all the options and sit next to the tea shop located in the restaurant. I can’t help but overhear a loud conversation by students directly behind me.
“Would you like a tea?” *Sofia [name redacted], a teacher at an Atlanta area Muslim school, asks her class. Sofia is leading a field trip to this location, a historically Black Muslim community in DeKalb, to celebrate Black History Month. “We have to support our people, ” she declares with affection to Aleathia, the tea shop owner.
The students start to hover around the tea counter, excited at the opportunity to be away from school and have a glimmer of adulthood with their beverage. I find out later, that the teacher first brought her high schoolers and word spread like wildfire amongst the middle schoolers. The girls behind me start to surround me, oblivious to their surroundings in a way that’s very natural to a group of middle schoolers.
“Girls! Girls! Someone is sitting there! I am so sorry about that.” I laughed off Sophia’s apology to me. But I took this impromptu encounter to ask her a few questions.
I asked her what she meant by “supporting the community.” She explained she feels strongly about supporting the community, waving her hands to denote this shopping center and the Publix next door. “Eating here is like home, it’s organic and delicious.”
The girls’ tea orders are called, the majority get a lavender tea latte (maybe per suggestion by Aleathia for its calming properties) while Sofia gets an energizing afternoon caffeinated blend.
This community is the oldest Muslim community in the Atlanta area, having been founded in the early 1960s. The mosque and school subsequently moved to DeKalb in 1975. One of the founders was Iman Plemon El-Amin, Iman Emeritus of the Atlanta Majid.
In 2020, the early months of COVID occurred during Ramadan. Ramadan is the month-long period of reflection, prayer, and fasting for Muslims across the world. During the entire month of Ramadan, observing Muslims fast every day from dawn to sunset. At sunset, Muslims will gather together for Iftar, the evening supper, to come together with family and friends to break the fast. COVID prevented this tradition of gathering and breaking bread with family and friends.
Springreens pivoted and began offering Drive-Thru Iftar. During the 2020 Ramadan month, Springreens raised $60,000 and gave away 5,000 free meals. The food that was handed out did not cut corners either, it was the same food from the hot bar. In addition to the veggies, lamb shanks and baked chicken were also in the giveaways. This could only happen through the support and donations that came flooding in for supplies and food.
Sofia hopes 2022 Ramadan will be different. But in the meantime, she is bringing her students together over lavender London fogs and for her, a high caffeine energy tea. I walk over to the tea counter, interested to try some myself. Before I could order, Aleathia, the shop owner, asked, “What do you want your tea to do for you today?”
Aleathia Shakir Saleem and Mariah Shakir Mitchell are the owners of Jaydia Ché Tea Shop located in Community Café. The shop features a wall of jars filled with whole leaf teas and every type of blend imaginable. They began Jaydia Ché as a place for the community and to connect with their ancestors.
To Aleathia and Mariah, making tea is a process. A process that starts in the earth with the farmers harvesting their high quality, organic, loose leaf tea. The tea is then hand mixed and blended, not machine ground. She tells me about a popular fall blend; a pumpkin chai that was made from local pumpkin they cut and dehydrated at their workshop. Another blend they created for Black History Month is “Sweets and Roots,” named after sweet potatoes and family roots, which is made from locally farmed sweet potatoes they also dehydrated.
I finally decided on a rooibos chai blend. She explains that rooibos is native to South Africa and that instead of the typical clove, they used star anise to tell a different story. She encourages me to use all of my senses to experience the tea. Feel the warmth of the cup, smell the leaves, look at the colors, breathe a little slower…slow down a little. Good tea is about the ingredients as much as it is about the process and relaxation of making it. After all, Jayida Ché is Arabic for “good tea”.
The 2:00 pm lunch rush finally dies down and Muhammad joins me at the table near the tea shop. Muhammad Jihad, owner of Springreens, is a young restauranteur with a large smile. He started Springreens in 2018 as a salad utopia, but altered course when a customer came in and commented “You know your mother cooks really, really good. You should see if she could come and cook hot food…So we got a steam table, she started cooking the hot food, and after that it just–it blew up.”
Springreens is determined to offer a different type of soul food, one that is organic, fresh, and homemade. Food that heals from within. I ask him what soul food is to him; he starts, then pauses. “I can tell you what I envision…. Soul food is a sunny day, people around, everyone happy … it tells a story of people, the people that cook it, the people that eat it. It’s love.”
Muhammad grew up in this community, attending the Muhammad School that is adjacent to the shopping center. At first many in the community were not sure about his concept, it was new but took over a space that had become occupied for a longtime by another restaurant. The previous restaurant wasn’t always as welcoming to others from different faiths or backgrounds. But things have changed. Muhammad explains that now, older Muslims have come up to him praising him, expressing what a good job he is doing by bringing everyone through the doors.
“Religion should never deter human beings,” Muhammad declares. “Everyone should still love each other, do what’s right for each other. So, you know, I’m just trying to push that motive, you know.”
I look around the restaurant which is now empty. Most of the crowd has wandered to the parking lot, doggy bags in hand, laughing as they finish up their lingering conversations. It seems like the good vibes lingering from Springreens are also in their doggie bags.
Springreens and Jayida Ché are located at Community Café:
The author would like to thank the many people who took the time to contribute their oral histories to the DHC Archives.
Listen to the Oral Histories Here:
Read the Interviews Here: