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.


Traditional dish nourishes hope in Kabul

Updated 25 January 2020

Traditional dish nourishes hope in Kabul

  • Expats and Afghans queue together for taste of local eatery’s authentic stew

KABUL: The soft snap of customers breaking bread punctuates the silence in Waheed’s Restaurant in the heart of Kabul.

As the diners dunk pieces of hot and crispy naan into bowls of freshly cooked chinaki, or mutton stew, waiters can be seen craning their necks, looking for empty tables to accommodate those queuing outside the entrance.

The aroma of the traditional Afghan dish — made with lamb chops, lentils, onions, tomatoes, herbs, and spices — draws people to the restaurant every day, Abdul Waheed, the owner, told Arab News, adding that it is the least he can do to keep an authentic “Afghan tradition alive.”

“Other dishes like pizza, kabab and rice are much easier and take less time to cook,” the 43-year-old Waheed said. “But we are taking the trouble to keep the tradition alive despite getting the low returns on the dish compared with other meals.”

Chinaki is also known as teapot soup because of the vessel it was once cooked in — a teapot.

With a recipe dating back 150 years, the local dish is served by only a handful of Kabul restaurants and is one of the few remaining on menu lists as cafes and restaurants offering foreign cuisines take over.

Typical chinaki is cooked in small chinaware teapots, rarely available in markets and hard to mend after repeated use. Since the taste of the dish varies if cooked in a metal pot, customers are always on the hunt for restaurants that prepare the dish in the traditional style.

Depending on the number of pots, one or two cooks stand for hours to constantly stir the soup with a wooden spoon, adding a small amount of water at regular intervals to keep it from burning.

The arduous cooking process means the dish is cooked only once a day and served at lunchtime. Regular customers, however, know exactly what time to walk in.

“I come here at least four times a month,” Sher Ahmad said. “I like chinaki, it is my favorite food. I know people who have heard of this restaurant in other parts of the country and come to try it when they visit Kabul.”

Waheed said he hopes to keep his familiy tradition alive for as long as possible.

“I inherited the restaurant from my grandfather and father. We have been serving people for nearly 70 years,” he said.

The eatery is located on the second floor of a ramshackle building in an old and bustling part of a bazaar which was demolished by the British forces in the 19th century and destroyed again during fighting in the 1990s.

Waheed’s customers include MPs and government officials accompanied by armed guards for protection.

A former interior minister, Amruallah Saleh, who often travels in an armored vehicle, has been to Waheed’s restaurant twice, according to Feraidoon, one of the cooks.

“He liked it a lot and on one occasion ate twice in one day,” Feraidoon said.

Women wishing to eat rely on takeaways since there is no section for them in the restaurant — another sign of a male-dominated society.

In upmarket parts of Kabul, expensive restaurants have increased in the past 20 years, especially with the arrival of foreign troops and aid workers who brought along dishes from their countries of origin.

Abdullah Ansar, a manager for the Cafeteria, a leading restaurant in the city, said that although his menu features more than 300 foreign-style meals, local dishes were still a favorite for both Afghans and expatriates.

With more than four decades’ experience in the industry, Ansar has been host to regional and world leaders, including former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

Ansar said he relies on local products, but also imports ingredients such as cheese, fish, prawns, olive oil and canned fruit from the UAE.

“Afghanistan has delicious local dishes. If peace comes, tourists will come here, and the restaurant and hotel industry will further flourish,” he said.

But like many Afghans, Ansar does not know when the fighting will end and stability will return to the country.