THE NEWCOMER KITCHEN
Project an important way to keep alive the food culture of Syria and share a few laughs with new friends
TORONTO - Walking into the Newcomer Kitchen, one’s senses are assailed. Chopped onions bring a tear to the eye, the scents of lemon and mint mingle in the air, and amid the clatter of utensils and pots is the sound of happy chatter as Syrian women discuss combining the ingredients for yalanji — stuffed grape leaves — and gossip a little.
The women, who came from Syria as part of the federal government’s sponsorship program for refugees, were housed for months in hotels with no access to a kitchen to prepare food for their families.
The Newcomer Kitchen in Toronto is the brainchild of Len Senater, founder and owner of The Depanneur, which hosts pop-up food events and workshops. When he heard about the plight of the refugee families, he decided to open his kitchen to them to cook and enjoy communal meals.
It wasn’t easy to connect with the Syrian women until Rahaf Alakbani and her husband Esmaeel Abofakher became volunteers and then co-ordinators with the Newcomer Kitchen project. The young couple, government-sponsored refugees from Sweida in Syria, did social work in their native country and worked as interpreters in refugee camps in Turkey. They’d developed a rapport with families staying in the Plaza Hotel, who’d fled a homeland torn apart by civil war.
“These women are very different than the women that walked in from the Plaza Hotel. Oh, my gosh, they are different. They are who they should be,” says Cara Benjamin-Pace, assistant manager at The Depanneur and one of the volunteers who helped launch the project in March.
“The act of cooking is so fundamental both to them as individuals, as women, as women together, as a community, as building a community,” explains Benjamin-Pace between helping one cook find the lemons she needs and advising another which cutting board to use for meat — after confirming with Alakbani she is saying the correct word.
“It’s really a primary part of culture and a lot of these women had been in the Turkish camps for a year before. They hadn’t been in the kitchen. They hadn’t been able to cook. So the very first day it was a really profound experience.
“And the smiles, the smiles started to come and the happiness, the eating and the food and being able to take something back to their families that had such value.”
Smiling broadly, Alakbani, 25, tells how glad she and the other women are to be there.
“We appreciate that so much being here because we are so happy. We feel that all of our human rights are respected and everything is very good. We feel that our real home is here,” she says while rolling a mixture of rice seasoned with parsley, mint, garlic, onion, black pepper and a bit of finely ground coffee in grape leaves.
“Now everything is very good because we became like a family.
The next step was to create economic opportunities for the women to make money. Senator advertised the availability of their meals on The Depanneur website and they’ve sold out every week.
Eight to 10 women cook and package the meals each week, which cost $20 plus HST. Foodora sponsors free delivery within a certain radius.
At the end of the day, the cost of groceries purchased by Senater and Benjamin-Pace along with a bit for packaging and kitchen rental is subtracted from the revenue.
“It doesn’t cover the cost of the day, but it makes them feel that it’s not charity,” says Benjamin-Pace.
“Each lady now she has a business. Because of this project it makes the ladies go out and have opportunities to integrate with the Canadians to see new faces, to gather together, to have fun, cook what we want and it’s really good,” says Alakbani.
The Newcomer Kitchen is an important way to keep alive the food culture of Syria, where culinary lore is passed from grandmother to mother to daughter, says Anissa Helou, a chef and food writer who was born and raised between Beirut, Lebanon, and Mashta al-Helou, Syria.
Many young people displaced during the civil war may not have the chance to watch their mothers and grandmothers cook.
“The displacement is not necessarily why they would lose their food culture, but poverty and not having a proper kitchen, living in camps, all this will contribute to a loss of knowledge, of position, and it’s very sad because it’s a wonderful cuisine and a very rich cuisine,” Helou says from Trapani, Sicily.
“I know there are programs (in Canada) to help them and keep them and a lot of them will keep the food because that’s the first thing that will remind them of home, but it just changes when they leave their country and when they leave the social context and everything.”
The Newcomer Kitchen offers other benefits, including mentoring and cultural sharing — in both directions, points out Senater.
“What we have here is a sort of exciting proof of concept, a prototype of an interesting way to use pop-up dining with positive social impact to create this bridge between our two communities in a way that’s sort of equitable and dignified and sustainable and of a real mutual benefit for everyone involved,” says Senater.
“It’s an idea that could work with any newcomer community in any restaurant kitchen willing to open its doors in any city in the world.”
Recent Syrian migrants Holia Mustafa, Nana Sahloul and Majeda el Mafaalani prepare a typical Syrian meal at the Newcomer Kitchen.
Hanan Akash helps prepare a typical Syrian meal at a community kitchen in Toronto.
Young Jury Musri eats watermelon during a break in cooking.