‘Music and Mezze for Hope’: South Jersey Restaurateurs, Musicians, Respond to Turkish Earthquake with Charity Event


The fundraiser will be held Sunday, March 5, at Material Culture in Philadelphia. All proceeds go to victims of the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria.

By Matt Skoufalos | March 3, 2023

In early February, the nations of Turkey and Syria were devastated by a series of earthquakes on par with the most severe ever recorded in the history of the region.

With a death toll surpassing 50,000 lives lost, more than 100,000 injured, and nearly 30 million affected by the earthquakes and their aftershocks, people of the region have been in desperate need of aid.

Efforts have been complicated by regional geopolitics, including an ongoing humanitarian crisis in Syria, an inexplicably delayed response from Turkish disaster management agencies, and an overwhelming lack of preparedness for this type of disaster in one of the most earthquake-prone regions of the world.

To that end, relief efforts from throughout the world have been pouring into the area, including from those with close family ties to the region. On Sunday, March 5, a group of organizers from South Jersey and Philadelphia are putting on a charity event to help raise money for victims of the earthquakes.

Music and Mezze for Hope” takes place from 3 to 8 p.m. at Material Culture in the Nicetown-Tioga section of Philadelphia. Proceeds from Sunday’s event will be dedicated to a pair of relief agencies: the international Center for Disaster Philanthropy, and Ahbap, a non-governmental association founded by Turkish rock singer Haluk Levent.

Featuring live entertainment, bellydance, Middle Eastern cuisine, spirits, and a charity auction, the event is organized by Cedar Diaspora, a nonprofit established in the wake of the 2020 explosion that decimated the Lebanese capital of Beirut.

The organization takes its name from the cedar tree, a prominent symbol of the country of Lebanon, whose seedlings “are growing the culture far, far away, and allowing it to live on,” its founder Elias Bitar said.

“This is a great vehicle for us to raise awareness of these different tragedies, but it’s mostly about advancing culture as a healing mechanism,” Bitar said. “Any opportunity that we have to throw a party and expose people to our culture, we enjoy doing it, and for a purpose other than financial gain.

Elias Bitar outside of Norma’s Mediterranean Restaurant in Cherry Hill (2018). Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

Bitar’s family has operated Norma’s Eastern Mediterranean Restaurant in Cherry Hill for decades, and is catering Sunday’s event.

He likened the act of charity to sharing an heirloom yogurt starter.

It’s something for which a customer is never to be charged, his mother told him long ago, because “you don’t own that.”

“It keeps it going,” Bitar said. “One day, we might need to go and get that starter; if someone wants to hoard it, we can’t.

“Culture — and it’s culture that goes into yogurt — is all the same,” he said. “You have to put a certain amount back to keep it going. If somebody dies, then they take those recipes with them. If they give them freely, they live on.”

Musician Billy Tayoun of Oaklyn, who’s organizing the entertainment for Music and Mezze for Hope, also traces his family roots to the region affected by the disaster. Giving back through performance with his band, The Mid East Ensemble — which draws its name from his family’s now-shuttered restaurant, The Middle East — means celebrating the influences that have formed his upbringing.

“Growing up with Lebanese music and culture, I would say that Turkish, Armenian, and Greek music are almost equal as part of my personal culture,” Tayoun said. “It’s a uniquely American thing to be able to get a couple guys from each of these groups on the same stage to play these songs.

“Every one of those countries plays a version of that same exact song that originated thousands of years ago somewhere,” Tayoun said. “We might have different words for that song, but these musicians just know the music regardless of the origin of where we learned these songs.

In addition to the Mid East Ensemble, the bill includes Armenian music from guitarist Vahe Sarkissian; Turkish folk-rock from Istanbul native Bariş Kaya and his band, Barakka; Greek music from Animus, led by Bill Koutsouros; and Mustafa Temur. The musicians will also be accompanied by Lebanese bellydancer Meesha.

Like the music that touches a diversity of cultures across international borders, so too has the disaster united nations in their relief efforts.

Vahe Sarkissian. Credit: Vahe Sarkissian.

“People need help for a sense of what it is just to live,” Tayoun said.

“Our culture owes a lot to that region, to that people, who was hit by this.

“We’re using the music and the talents that we got from that region, collectively, to give back to them,” he said.

Material Culture owner George Jevremović, who offered up his business to host the event, also has an intimate connection to the area affected by the earthquakes.

“In the most personal sense for me, the work that I did for decades building up a rug business using only natural dies and handspun wool, was centrally located in the earthquake zone,” Jevremović said. “I was there building a business for decades; I sold that business in 2011, but my heart is still very much attached to people there.

“We’re talking about eastern Turkey, southeast Anatolia, on the other side of the border from Syria, which is predominantly Kurdish people,” he said. “They haven’t always been on the easy side of history. For these people to be hit in this sort of massive, traumatic way, there are the dead, but there’s also the trauma of a displaced population.”

Like Tayoun and Bitar, Jevremović’s livelihood is built around cultural connections to craftspeople working in ancient methods comprising handmade traditions that persist to this day. He is also contributing rugs and kalim tapestries for auction at the event.

“Historically speaking, you’re talking about the crossroads of civilizations going across Mesopotamia, Anatolia, and Southeastern Turkey,” Jevremović said. “It goes by a lot of names, because there have been so many civilizations.

George Jevremović with a Turkish rug on a village rooftop near the town of Kahta. Credit: George Jevremović.

“You’ve got the history of many empires, and in recent times, you’ve got this fraught representation,” he said.

“What I’m really trying to do is raise the level of concern in our little incremental way here, and help to raise money for a culture that has been hurt and traumatized.”

All three organizers foresee the work they’re doing around Music and Mezze for Hope as being of a piece with additional cultural events to follow in the future.

“Our goal is to not just be reacting to tragedies, but to be building and doing new things that preserve and display our culture,” Tayoun said.

“This is just the beginning.”

Music and Mezze for Hope will be held Sunday, March 5, from 3 to 8 p.m. at Material Culture (4700 Wissahickon Avenue, Philadelphia). The event will feature live music, bellydancing, an auction, food, and beverages. Tickets are limited to 250 in total at $100 apiece, but donations of any kind are welcome.

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