‘How do we sell our food in Canada?’

The three Syr­ian refugee moms be­hind Karam Kitchen have big plans to make you a de­li­cious din­ner

The Hamilton Spectator - - FRONT PAGE - MOLLY HAYES

Just a few months af­ter ar­riv­ing in Hamil­ton, three Syr­ian refugee moms are com­bin­ing their cook­ing skills and en­tre­pre­neur­ial spirit to cre­ate jobs for them­selves and de­li­cious meals for their com­mu­nity.

Sit­ting around a table at the Kitchen Col­lec­tive on King Street East, Rawa’a Aloliwi, Dalal Al Zoubi and Mana­hel Al Sha­reef share a laugh about the way things have turned out.

Through a trans­la­tor, they ex­plain that they never ex­pected they’d be the ones go­ing to work — launch­ing a small busi­ness, no less — while their hus­bands go to classes to im­prove their English.

The trio and their fam­i­lies ar­rived in the city from Syria — via a refugee camp in Jor­dan and a quick stop in Toronto — this past spring. The tran­si­tion was ter­ri­fy­ing at first. They did not speak much English. They did not know the cul­ture, and were acutely aware of the mis­con­cep­tions about their own.

Even small things like street sig­nals were a new puz­zle to fig­ure out.

But just a few months in, they have been pleas­antly sur­prised to find their new city so wel­com­ing. Two women in par­tic­u­lar — Brit­tani Far­ring­ton and Kim Kralt — have done more for them than they could have dreamed.

It was Al Sha­reef, 32, who first met Far­ring­ton, when she vol­un­teered to give the new­comer and her husband a ride back into Toronto on their first day in the city.

From there, Far­ring­ton’s church — the Eucharist Church, down­town — de­cided to throw a wel­come din­ner for the fam­i­lies.

But the women in­sisted on do­ing the cook­ing for them.

The church pro­vided the in­gre­di­ents and the women took over the kitchen.

In Syria, they’d never thought of their cook­ing skills as spe­cial — ev­ery­one cooked big meals, of­ten wel­com­ing dozens of ex­tended fam­ily mem­bers and friends into their homes at a time.

But here, in the Mac­Nab Pres­by­te­rian Church in their new home­town, ev­ery­one was blown away by their culi­nary skills. Sud­denly they had a gift to share.

Yalanji, falafel and kibbeh. Kababs. Mana­keesh. Kabsa. Each dish re­ceived rave re­views. And they be­gan to won­der ... could this trans­late into a ca­reer?

“They said ‘How do we sell our food in Canada?’” Far­ring­ton re­calls.

“In their minds, cook­ing was a skill they are amaz­ing at — and you don’t need a lot of lan­guage skills … cook­ing for 60 peo­ple is not stress­ful for them. They just know how to scale it up.”

Once Kralt, a friend of Far­ring­ton’s who has a bach­e­lor’s de­gree in so­cial work and ex­pe­ri­ence in the cater­ing in­dus­try, got on board, the five­some be­gan to brain­storm a busi­ness plan.

Soon, the Karam — mean­ing “gen­er­ous” in Ara­bic — Kitchen was born.

“It’s a nat­u­ral fit, they are the most gen­er­ous women I’ve ever met,” Far­ring­ton says. They were invit­ing her and her husband over for din­ners even be­fore they were fully set­tled.

They have launched a Kick­S­tarter fundrais­ing cam­paign, look­ing to raise $6,500 to help cover the ba­sic equip­ment they’ll need to get started — things such as print­ing menus, kitchen sup­plies, busi­ness li­cens­ing and in­sur­ance, and, of course, in­gre­di­ents.

They have met with city staff, and have se­cured a spot for their head­quar­ters at the non-profit Kitchen Col­lec­tive, an af­ford­able com­mu­nal com­mer­cial kitchen on King Street East.

The group is also hop­ing to use the funds to hire an Ara­bic trans­la­tor for meet­ings to en­sure that all three of the woman are able to par­tic­i­pate in all as­pects of the busi­ness.

It has been a whirl­wind for three women who never ex­pected to be en­trepreneurs.

Back home in Syria, Al Zoubi, 45, was a teacher. Al Sha­reef was a house­keeper, and Alo­laliwi, 30, had been in school. She grad­u­ated from a sus­tain­abil­ity pro­gram just be­fore her fam­ily was forced to flee.

On Wednes­day, a gag­gle of happy kids squealed around them dur­ing the in­ter­view, as trans­la­tor Alice Al Hou­jairy — a so­cial worker from Wes­ley Ur­ban Min­istries — re­lays ques­tions to the trio.

Lan­guage is still the big­gest chal­lenge. Al Zoubi is the only one of the three who can speak English, though the other two are slowly learn­ing.

As a re­sult, the kitchen of­ten be­comes a game of cha­rades.

But Far­ring­ton and Kralt are learn­ing a new lan­guage them­selves — the lan­guage of food.

They are in awe watch­ing the women mix in­gre­di­ents from mem­ory, go­ing only by scent. Even in the camps they al­ways found a way to cook.

Far­ring­ton and Kralt are im­pressed, but are con­tin­u­ally ask­ing them (well, act­ing out the re­quest) to use mea­sure­ments so they can price it out.

It has been a long, war-torn road here. And deep down, they just want to be back at home in Syria. But for now, Hamil­ton is home — they are safe here, and thriv­ing. They feel em­pow­ered.

And their hus­bands are proud too, they say. Re­lieved to know that women are safe go­ing to work here. Pro­tected.

Al Zoubi adds — through the trans­la­tor — that she is happy that this busi­ness might help change peo­ple’s per­cep­tions of new­comer Ara­bic women. They are work­ing hard to sup­port their fam­i­lies, just like ev­ery­one else.

Just a cou­ple days into their fundrais­ing, they’re more than two-thirds of the way to their goal. It seems the com­mu­nity, too, is gen­er­ous. At this rate, Far­ring­ton says they should be up and run­ning by Septem­ber.

In their minds, cook­ing was a skill they are amaz­ing at — and you don’t need a lot of lan­guage skills … BRIT­TANI FAR­RING­TON VOL­UN­TEER

From left, Rawa’a Aloliwi, Kim Kralt, Brit­tani Far­ring­ton and Dalal Al Zoubi at Kitchen Col­lec­tive, where they hope to start their cater­ing busi­ness.

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