Syrian refugees find hope in kitchen

US government-funded project for refugees in Turkey is called LIFE — Livelihoods Innovation through Food Entrepreneurship. (Supplied photo)
Updated 08 June 2018

Syrian refugees find hope in kitchen

  • Falafel and hummus are helping displaced families get back on track after civil war derailed their lives
  • An estimated 3.5 million Syrian refugees live in Turkey after seven long years of civil war in their own country.

ISTANBUL: Ennam Alshayib wakes up every morning, grateful for her new life and renewed purpose. But memories of the last four years she has spent on the run from war-torn Syria still haunt her. 

First there was the arduous journey she took from Damascus with her family in tow, followed by their arrival in Egypt, desperate and tired. Then they went on to Dubai, before eventually reaching their new home in Turkey.

After a difficult start to her time here, the turning point came when she spotted a Facebook post from a US government-funded project for refugees in Turkey called LIFE — Livelihoods Innovation through Food Entrepreneurship.

She immediately applied to take part and was soon sitting in the LIFE office, inside a cozy four-story building in the middle of the main industrial zone of Istanbul.

An estimated 3.5 million Syrian refugees live in Turkey after seven long years of civil war in their own country. Many of them find it difficult to find regular employment, begging on the streets of Istanbul or living in squalid refugee camps.

LIFE, which was launched last September, aims to change that. It was started by a consortium of Turkish, Syrian and American partners who wanted to support refugees to earn a living through starting up restaurants and food businesses.

The two-year project is targeted at refugees in Gaziantep, near Turkey’s southern border with Syria, and Istanbul, with the goal of giving them greater independence and helping them integrate into Turkish society.

The project is to have a total of 1,240 direct beneficiaries, 75 percent of them Syrians, and at least half of them women. 

Participants are trained in various fields ranging from food marketing and hygiene, to e-commerce and packaging. 

At the end of the program, they publish their own cookbooks with recipes for Turkish, Syrian and other Middle Eastern dishes, as well as stories about the origins of each dish. Participants come from varying backgrounds, bringing with them different skills and experiences. 

“I graduated from university with a degree in pre-school education,” Alshayib told Arab News. “But I have always found the food industry attractive and have experience cooking for big events at the company my husband was working for in Damascus.”

Before joining the LIFE program, Alshayib was selling traditional Syrian foods, such as hummus and falafel, at the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. She hopes to set up her own Syrian restaurant in Turkey after graduating from the program.

Another participant, 48-year-old Jordanian Rabeia Alsheshany, also dreams of running her own business.

“I’m now in the middle of Europe and it’s become my home country. My daughter studies at university here and I would prefer to stay here for the rest of my life,” she said.

Each trainee is assigned a mentor. The program culminates in a competition during which the trainees will pitch their business plans to a panel of judges. The two most innovative will be chosen to receive financial support.

Ali Ercan Ozgur, is president of International Development Management, a Turkish civil society organization and one of the sponsors of LIFE. 

“The most important role of this project will be to support the skills that will help (refugees) have a sustainable livelihood,” he said. He described food as a “common language” that can help unite the people of Turkey and Syria.


Amid coronavirus pandemic, a healthy heart is more crucial than ever

Updated 29 September 2020

Amid coronavirus pandemic, a healthy heart is more crucial than ever

  • World Heart Day on Sept. 29 is intended to remind people worldwide to pause and re-evaluate their lifestyle
  • Fearing they will catch COVID-19, many heart-attack and stroke sufferers are wrongly avoiding hospital visits

DUBAI: Observed each year on Sept. 29, World Heart Day was created to make people aware that cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the planet’s leading cause of death.

This year, with the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) claiming more than 91,224 lives worldwide so far, the message that people should take responsibility for their heart health has greater meaning than ever before.

According to the World Heart Federation, which launched World Heart Day in 2000, CVD, including heart disease and stroke, is the world’s number-one killer, claiming more than 17.9 million lives each year.

Of these deaths, 80 percent are caused by coronary heart diseases (heart attacks) and cerebrovascular diseases (strokes), mostly affecting people in low and middle-income countries. These diseases also account for nearly half of all deaths by non-communicable diseases (NCD).

Across the Arab region, neglect of heart health is cause for growing concern.

Indian nursing students hold placards on the occasion of World Heart Day during a public awareness event in Amritsar. (AFP)

Poor dietary habits and environmental conditions in fast-growing urban settings mean that even children in the Arab Gulf region are at higher risk of developing CVDs than those in other Arab states.

Take Saudi Arabia, for example. About 5 to 6 percent of the population suffer from CVD, with diabetes and hypertension considered the most common risk factors, according to Dr. Mohammed Balghith, associate professor at King Saud bin Abdul Aziz University for Health Sciences and interventional cardiologist at the National Guard Hospital.

“Many people live a sedentary lifestyle, which means that smoking, obesity and hyperlipidaemia (high levels of cholesterol) are major contributors for people at high cardiovascular risk,” Balghith told Arab News.

The World Health Organization estimates that 54 percent of deaths from NCDs in the Eastern Mediterranean region are caused by CVDs. It attributes the prevalence of such diseases to diabetes, hypertension and the alarming rise of obesity in the GCC, especially among children.

These numbers are even more worrying when one considers the potential long and short-term effects of COVID-19 on the heart, brain and lungs.

Although many claims about the disease still lack definitive proof, multiple studies have concluded that people with CVDs are more vulnerable to developing severe forms of COVID-19.

“One of the unintended consequences of COVID-19 is that people suffering heart attacks and strokes delay seeking medical help in Saudi Arabia,” said Balghith.

Dr. Mohammed Balghith, associate professor at King Saud bin Abdul Aziz University for Health Sciences and interventional cardiologist at the National Guard Hospital.

“We have noticed a decrease in the number of patients with CVDs during the current pandemic as a result of the lockdowns and because so many patients are afraid of visiting the hospital during this time. This is very alarming because delaying medical help can result in even worse outcomes.”

Cardiac death is largely preventable if an individual experiencing a heart attack is taken to hospital in time for treatment, said Balghith.

“It is truly disheartening to see this … especially since the risk of death from an untreated heart attack is 10 times higher than from COVID-19,” he added.

This trend leads to “an unnecessary loss of life,” he said, while urging heart patients in Saudi Arabia to visit their local hospital, where the risk of COVID-19 infection has been minimized for heart attack and stroke patients.

Air pollution and smoking remain major predictors of an increase in early cardiovascular diseases worldwide. (AFP)

However, despite increased efforts to spread awareness about the nature of heart diseases during the pandemic, many people are skipping voluntary visits to the hospital.

To be certain, research on the effects of COVID-19 on the heart is still a work in progress.

“Data is still early but studies have shown that three-fourths of people infected with COVID-19 have residual changes on cardiac magnetic resonance imaging, even though they may have been minimally symptomatic,” Dr. Stephen Kopecky, cardiologist at the Mayo Clinic, told Arab News.

While the long-term impacts of COVID-19 remain “unknown,” Kopecky said the virus could manifest in the heart by causing myocarditis (injury to muscles tissues of the heart), pericarditis and decreased left ventricular systolic function, with arrhythmia identified as a secondary effect.

“The primary effects of COVID-19 are on the lungs, but due to hypoxia (a lack of oxygen), the heart is stressed, and Type 2 myocardial infarctions can occur,” he said.

The good news is that COVID-19 is not guaranteed to cause heart conditions in all recovering patients.

In fact, with the exception of specific cases where patients are susceptible to heart problems caused by common risk factors or genetics, heart health is largely dependent on lifestyle.

“Lifestyle, lifestyle, lifestyle,” said Kopecky, emphasizing the importance of diet and exercise in healthy living.

“The first contributor to heart disease is diet. Intake of processed foods has increased over the past two decades,” he said, pointing in particular to processed fats and carbohydrates.

The second main contributor to cardiovascular disease is a lack of physical activity, with many jobs outside the home likely to be sedentary with increased screen time and little or no vigorous activity, he said.

Dr. Stephen Kopecky, cardiologist at the Mayo Clinic.

Moreover, air pollution and smoking remain major predictors of an increase in early cardiovascular diseases worldwide, despite a slight reduction in cigarette use reported in economically advanced countries.

“Diet and physical activity, avoidance of smoking, and maintenance of normal weight is key to maintaining a healthy heart. Also, stress reduction, adequate sleep and limited alcohol intake is extremely helpful,” Kopecky said.

His advice on World Heart Day coincides with a wider global campaign called #UseHeart, launched to encourage individuals, families, communities and governments to participate in activities that help them take charge of their heart health and spread awareness.

The campaign also supports the unified pledge made by world leaders in 2012 to reduce global mortality from NCDs by 25 percent before 2025.

Non-communicable diseases that lead to cardiovascular disease include obesity, Type 2 diabetes, hypertension and hyperlipidemia.

The campaign’s message is particularly crucial in developing countries, where the prevalence of CVDs is growing.

Kopecky said that heart attacks often afflict those active in the workforce, mostly those under the age of 65.

“In economically advanced countries such as the US, the prevalence of cardiovascular disease has remained about the same. But in the last five years, the incidence of cardiovascular events has actually increased somewhat, and lifespan has decreased compared with what was happening previously,” he said, referring to the reduction in CVD events over the last 50 years.

Additionally, Kopecky said that CVDs generally manifest 10 years earlier in men than in women, often affecting men in their late 50s to early 60s, and women in their late 60s to early 70s.

Yet, regardless of gender, age and environment, at least 80 percent of premature deaths from heart disease and stroke can be avoided.

All things considered, healthcare experts insist it is down to individuals making the right lifestyle choices when it comes to what they eat, how often they exercise, and whether they smoke.

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