‘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
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.