When Taylor Cheney answered the phone on Friday morning, she was exhausted — she had gone to sleep at 3 a.m. the night before after working a long shift at Yalla, the Capitol Hill restaurant she owns. That Thursday, October 12, she had decided to donate 100 percent of the restaurant’s proceeds to the Palestinian Children’s Relief Fund, a long-standing nonprofit that provides humanitarian and medical aid to children in Gaza and throughout Palestine.
The fundraiser brought in nearly $2,400 in just five hours, but it meant that Cheney and the only other worker at Yalla’s walk-up window were slammed turning out saj wraps, meze, and atayef, a dessert made by wrapping a sort of pancake around pistachio filling. “I can’t even tell you how many people showed up yesterday. As soon as we opened at one there were people outside, and it didn’t stop,” Cheney tells Eater Seattle. “I’m usually pretty fast at line cooking but it was really hard.”
Cheney is not Palestinian herself, but she has been cooking food from the region for years. She was first introduced to that style of cuisine by neighbors in the apartment building where she used to live, then deepened her understanding under her mentor, Palestinian chef Nadia Tommalieh, who gave her a loan to help her turn Yalla from a pop-up to a brick-and-mortar in 2019. “I started learning about the Palestinian cause because of her, to be honest,” Cheney says.
Cheney has been to Palestine many times, most recently this year with Yalla’s assistant manager. She’s been struck by the generosity of the Palestinians when she visits. “People invite you in off the street for dinner,” she says. One day on this recent trip they asked a woman where they could find really authentic food, “and she literally called us a cab, paid the cab driver, and sent us to her favorite restaurant. That’s the way people act.”
“I just really hope that people don’t dehumanize them,” she adds. “They’re just like us, they love their children, they love their families, they’re nice people.”
When she saw the news that the Palestinian group Hamas, which controls Gaza, had launched an attack on Israel on October 7, killing more than 1,300 and kidnapping 199, many of them civilians, she was immediately worried for the future. “I thought, oh no, this is going to be bad. And it’s going to be very bad for Palestinians.”
She doesn’t want anyone to think that she supports Hamas’s actions. “I don’t condone that, I hope no one ever would think that I would condone that,” she says. But she knew that often when Palestinians attack Israel, the state responds with overwhelming force.
Since October 7, Israel has launched airstrikes against Gaza, killing over 2,700 people, and forced many in the northern part of Gaza to evacuate south. Israel, which controls Gaza’s borders and the movement of goods and people, has also cut off water and power to the area.
Cheney believes that Yalla is the only Seattle restaurant fundraising on behalf of Palestine, which she attributes to people being afraid of blowback on social media, on review platforms, and even in real life. She has received one-star reviews on Yelp and Google and even a phone call from a man who was “threatening me and calling me stupid... I don’t even know how he got my number.”
There have also been supportive responses — positive online reviews, people who reported the malicious one-star reviews, and many people who came by Yalla in person. One Palestinian woman cried when she talked to Cheney, she says. “I can’t even tell you how many Jews came by and some Israelis as well to show support for Palestinian liberation,” Cheney says. “This affects Israelis. This affects Jewish people in America. It’s not good for anyone.”
So far Cheney has held three fundraisers since October 7 and raised $3,600. She plans to do more in the coming week, but “we need like a couple days to recover,” she says. “We need to build back our prep because we’re really tiny and we only a couple of fridges. It’s gonna be a process for me to get it back. I want to make sure that we’re more ready for the next one.”