Project an im­por­tant way to keep alive the food cul­ture of Syria and share a few laughs with new friends

The Hamilton Spectator - - GO - LOIS ABRAHAM

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.

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