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.


Step aside Burger King, Lebanon’s Malak Al-Batata is claiming the French fries sandwich

Updated 19 February 2020

Step aside Burger King, Lebanon’s Malak Al-Batata is claiming the French fries sandwich

LONDON: Since time immemorial, Arabs and their ancestors have laid claim to some of the world's most renowned inventions. From coffee, to soap and Algebra, the world can pay tribute to Arabs for their role in creating and exporting some of today’s most used inventions.

The same can be said about Arab food creations. With Burger King’s latest announcement of the possible introduction a French fries sandwich in New Zealand, Arabs across social media were quick to remind the world of the sandwich batata (French fries sandwich) and attempt to lay claim to the delicious creation. 

In Beirut, nestled among Hamra’s brandless shops and street vendors, through the chaos of taxi horns and grilled corn vendors, stands Lebanon’s Malak Al-Batata (King of Fries) on Hamra Main Street. The sign, which has changed throughout the years from an artistic vintage look to a more modern logo with the rounded face of a king, can be identified from afar — a beacon for hungry travelers along the road.

The neon red menu charts all the sandwiches the “king” is ready to serve, especially the shop’s namesake best seller — the batata sandwich. 

For a mere LL 3,000 ($2), a diner can get the large, toasted, fry-filled sandwich and even watch the chefs prepare it behind the glass counter in typical deli fashion.

(Arab News)

Open up a pita, stuff it with crunchy coleslaw, sweet ketchup, crispy golden French fries, then give it a slight toast and the best example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts is achieved.

(Arab News)

When news spread of Burger King’s French fry sandwich, Arabs took to social media in their droves to defend the beloved batata sandwich.

“They’ve appropriated the batata sandwich,” tweeted Abed Ayoub, the legal and policy director at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

“The only true kings of this sandwich (are) Malak Al-Taouk and Malak Al-Batata. Y’all are frauds,” tweeted Ibn Battouta Jr.

“Feeling like a hipster (because) in Lebanon we (have) been eating sandwich batata since like 1914,” another user, Batenjeen, tweeted.

While Arabs may lay claim to this invention — and have been quick to call Burger King out for being late to the game — they aren’t the only ones with similar sandwiches.

The UK version is named the chip butty, while the South African fare is called the chip roll — both of which are made with chips (fries) on buttered white bread or a bread roll, often with an added condiment such as brown sauce, ketchup, mayonnaise or malt vinegar.

In 2018, Business Insider rolled out a video showcasing the Turkish version of the batata sandwich called the Patso, which is cheesy bread stuffed with French fries and topped with ketchup and mayonnaise. 

The video prompted a similarly strong reaction form the Middle East, with many teasing the US’s “lateness to the game.”

“Bro I’ve been eating this for 21 years,” Mustiddies tweeted back in 2018, adding that, “Whenever my mom wouldn’t have the energy to cook, she’d shut us up with a fries sandwich.”