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November-December 2016

Syrian refugees build community with cooking

Behind the scenes at the Newcomer Kitchen and Karam Kitchen in Ontario

Amanda Scriver@amascriver

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Photo by J. Walton

It has been nearly one year since the Liberal government enacted a program to admit 25,000 Syrian refugees arrived in Canada. In their first year, many of the families faced several challenges to overcome: getting to know a brand new country, finding suitable accommodations, and trying to find a job in our country’s tough economic climate, all while facing systemic racism upon arrival. The resettlement process is not easy, and many are still trying to find their way here in Canada. While the Canadian government and private sponsors have helped—offering financial assistance, medical coverage, and housing—the biggest challenge many Syrians have faced is finding community.

What often connects community members is a good home-cooked meal. The table is where we gather, not just to eat, but to talk, share, and connect. Food gets people talking; it facilitates conversation. Many Canadians are privileged enough to forget our ready-access to kitchens and supermarkets filled with endless foodstuffs, and the power it has to bring communities together.

After witnessing in the Canadian media many Syrian refugees stranded in hotels and with little opportunity to cook and gather for regular meals for weeks at a time, Len Senater, owner and operator of The Depanneur, offered his drop-in kitchen space for Syrian women to cook. From there, Toronto’s Newcomer Kitchen was born.

It has been almost six months since Newcomer Kitchen launched and in that time, several families have utilized Senater’s space as their own. The program has given many newcomers the opportunity to not just cook alongside other Syrian families but to carve out and build for themselves their own identities and communities here in Canada. The kitchen has become a space to gain agency and legitimize traditions in a new country.

For the refugees who have come through the space, the act of cooking was simple and natural. In many Syrian homes, the kitchen is a focal point, and food brings loved ones together at the end of the day. A home-cooked meal can be seen as a seal of friendship. The space emphasizes the need to celebrate this culture—not to assimilate and mask it.

Many of the women who have used Senater’s space have not only connected with one another but also disconnected from the everyday struggles they face in the resettlement process. While Westerners often try to dismantle the gender stereotypes about women’s roles in kitchens, the Newcomer Kitchen program empowers women to showcase their culture. And it has created opportunity: those involved in the program catered 1,200 meals during Toronto’s Luminato Festival, and cooked for Toronto Mayor John Tory.

Meanwhile, some newcomers have started their own enterprises. In Hamilton, Ont., three Syrian women—Manahel Al Shareef, Dalal Al Zoubi and Rawa’a Aloliwi—launched a new catering business , along with co-founder Brittani Farrington. Their meeting was a bit cosmic in nature: Farrington explains she had planned a welcome dinner for a handful of displaced families at her church. Yet, it was these families who ended up cooking for her and the other volunteers that evening. The food planted a seed with the newcomers, as Al Shareef shared with CBC via Google translate: “We weren’t surprised when you were happy trying the Syrian food, because we know very well that the Syrian food is the best, especially if we are cooking it.” That evening spurred the creation of Karam Kitchen.

The catering company, which markets itself as a way to “empower Syrian newcomers to build a new life in Hamilton and contribute to [the city’s] vibrant community,” is just getting off the ground and recently launched a Kickstarter campaign that brought in $6,500 to fund its capital costs. Since its launch, the founders have worked on refining their catering menu to include a mix of Syrian classics and recognizable dishes to locals, such as tabouleh and hummus. So far, the business model is paying off, and the women have a packed few months ahead of them. “We Syrians are such a hard working people, we love to work and earn our own money and build ourselves even in the worst circumstances,” Al Shareef told CBC. As more Syrian families are welcomed into Canada and face the adaptation and acculturation process, these newcomers face the task of finding employment—and these kitchens can change that. “The biggest barrier to employment is a lack of a network, whether that be social, professional, or otherwise,” Jeremy Dutton, program coordinator for Immigrant Services Calgary’s integrated mentorship program, told the Globe and Mail. By connecting and networking through these programs, newcomers are building a professional network they need to make and create professional opportunities for themselves.

Utilizing their own skills, culture, and cuisine, these women have created the opportunity to not only build a community but build a career from it. Food has connected these families with other Canadians—and it is bound to continue empowering these Syrian-Canadians to create opportunities for themselves in the future.

Amanda Scriver is a passionate community builder and body image advocate based out of Toronto. She loves good coffee, trashy reality TV, and communicating via GIF. Read some of her other bylines in the Establishment, National Post, Sprudge, and Hello Giggles or follow her online @amascriver on all platforms.

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