Syr­ian chefs cook up at far-fetched meal in Gal­way

The Irish Times - - Home News - LORNA SIGGINS Western Cor­re­spon­dent

For four years, chefs Amer Marai (28), Mhd Ahyam Orabi (26) and Ah­mad Orabi (25) were un­able to cook in a kitchen. The last time was 2013 in the Syr­ian cap­i­tal Dam­as­cus, where many had died and thou­sands had been wounded in the har­row­ing civil war.

Four years later, hav­ing been forced to flee their homes to es­cape mil­i­tary re­cruit­ment, the Orabi broth­ers and Marai found them­selves in the kitchen of Miche­lin-starred restau­rant Loam in Gal­way.

The three men are par­tic­i­pants in a re­set­tle­ment scheme run through the UN High Com­mis­sion for Refugees (UNHCR). They ar­rived in Ire­land a month ago af­ter en­dur­ing what they re­called as much hard­ship in a Greek refugee camp. The three are part of a group now be­ing ac­com­mo­dated in Clonea Strand Ho­tel in Co Water­ford.

“We’ve been cooking in Clonea, and all we want to do is get back to a kitchen,” the three ex­plained, with as­sis­tance of Libyan-born in­ter­preter Adil Militti.

The men ex­pressed de­light at be­ing able to lend a hand for a night in Loam, as part of a col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween a group of Ir­ish-based chefs and the UNHCR.

The trio were joined by New Zealan­der Jess Mur­phy of Gal­way’s Kai restau­rant, Aus­tralian Damien Grey of Dublin’s Heron & Grey and Ja­panese chef Takashi Miyazaki of Miyazaki in Cork.

Syr­ian spe­cialty

A Syr­ian spe­cialty, za­atar, which is made with sesame seeds and olive oil, was their starter, while they also pre­pared chicken roasted with spices, pota­toes and sauce as part of the three-course meal which was ac­com­pa­nied by mu­sic from Gal­way’s Ukelele Orches­tra.

“We eat za­atar with tea at break­fast, and any time of day, and it is meant to give lots of en­ergy,”the Syr­i­ans said through their in­ter­preter, ex­plain­ing how it is the coun­try’s most pop­u­lar food. They also made Syr­ian pizza breads, which Marai had sold for a euro a piece in Greece to get by.

“We are im­mi­grants too, but we didn’t have to seek refuge here to es­cape a con­flict,” Mur­phy said, ex­plain­ing that the idea for the night came about in con­ver­sa­tion with Grey.

She is well aware of the is­sues around the right to work for asy­lum seek­ers, hav­ing run sev­eral “pop up” kitchens in di­rect pro­vi­sion cen­tres. “We were talk­ing about how we may rep­re­sent Ir­ish food, but what about the fu­ture in a chang­ing Ire­land?”she said. “We were also talk­ing about the short­age of chefs, and about how there are skilled chefs seek­ing asy­lum here.”

The UNHCR rowed in be­hind the ini­tia­tive, and the meal at ¤120 a head sold out. All pro­ceeds will be given to a fund that sup­ports culi­nary train­ing for asy­lum seek­ers. Gal­way-Mayo In­sti­tute has also of­fered three schol­ar­ships to peo­ple in di­rect pro­vi­sion for its culi­nary cour­ses, Mur­phy said.

Di­rect pro­vi­sion

The “Far-Fetched Din­ner” was the first of its type, and the UNHCR plans to seek ap­proval from the Depart­ment of Jus­tice for fur­ther ini­tia­tives within the di­rect pro­vi­sion sys­tem.

Enda O’Neill of UNHCR Ire­land ex­plained he had heard of the suc­cess of refugee food fairs from col­leagues in France.

“There was no neg­a­tive re­ac­tion to it,” he said. “In Ire­land, food is such an im­por­tant is­sue, and there are also the is­sues of the right to work, and the short­age of skilled chefs in the cater­ing sec­tor. We thought it might help to em­pha­sise th­ese pos­i­tive as­pects.”

Mean­while, the Gov­ern­ment’s re­sponse to the Supreme Court find­ing that the “ab­so­lute pro­hi­bi­tion” on asy­lum seek­ers’ right to work here is un­con­sti­tu­tional is ex­pected within the com­ing weeks.

‘‘ We were also talk­ing about how there are skilled chefs seek­ing asy­lum here


Amer Marai (left) and broth­ers Mhd Ahyam Orabi and Ah­mad Orabi in Loam Restau­rant, Gal­way.

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