Innovation: Syrian women refugees use cooking to restore morale and earn for their families

News Stories, 31 January 2014

© UNHCRPhoto
Cooking up a Feast: An innovative cooking project finds a way to tackle depression, stress and poverty among Syrian refugee women in Lebanon.

BEIRUT, Lebanon, January 31 (UNHCR) An innovative project has found a way to tackle depression, stress and poverty among Syrian women fleeing to Lebanon to escape war in their homeland: cooking.

"When we first conceived this project with UNHCR, we wanted to create an income-generating and self-sustained catering line by a small group of Syrian and Lebanese women," said Jihane Chahla, project manager at Tawlet, a local restaurant in Beirut. "Never did we imagine we would get this far. These women have become family to us, and to each other."

The workshop was launched last August at the Caritas Lebanon Migrant Centre, which opened its premises and kitchen to kick-start this unique project in Lebanon. Following two sessions of theory delivered by culinary experts, the 17 women 13 Syrians, and four Lebanese included to promote understanding between the communities proceeded to the kitchen.

"In the span of a mere five days, these women produced 33 full, delicious dishes, while being trained on the best cooking techniques and hygiene standards," said Kamal Mouzawak, head of Tawlet restaurant.

From these dishes, 14 were selected to remain on a fixed menu that they named "Atayeb Zaman," or "Old Time Goodies." They then worked to market the "Goodies" at exhibitions and events around town.

After six successful months, the women recently concluded their course, gathering in the restaurant to celebrate and talk loudly about food, ingredients, portions and comparisons of classical Syrian dishes with Lebanese ones. The project has helped them preserve their culinary traditions while making a better living.

"When I first enrolled in this workshop, I felt it fit because I was a housewife and I knew how to cook," said Ibtissam, one of the Syrian refugee women. "But here I learned to be organized, I learned to conceive a dream and pursue it. I felt like I took the first step forward in my life, that I existed."

The mood was very different before the programme. According to Danya Kattan, community services assistant at UNHCR, most women chosen were "depressed and very stressed out."

Many of the 13 Syrian women had arrived in Lebanon with little more than the clothes on their backs. This project was therapeutic, helping them survive a very difficult time and focus on the positive aspects of their lives.

"When I fled Syria to Lebanon, I didn't have high expectations other than safety, in fact I expected to spend my days idly," said Ibtissam. "But emptiness kills. This project gave me something to look forward to, I now feel confident that I too can help my family."

The workshop was also a way to bring Syrian and Lebanese women closer. Majida, one of the Lebanese women at the final gathering, said she had made "true friends" at the workshop. In addition to learning to cook Syrian dishes, she was "deeply impressed with the Syrian women's strength and resilience."

UNHCR hopes to replicate this project throughout Lebanon. The needs are immense. There are more than 880,000 Syrian refugees registered or waiting to be registered with UNHCR in Lebanon, more than 75 per cent of them women and children.

"We hoped to introduce the notion of entrepreneurship to talented women who never previously thought of making use of their skills, of taking an initiative that would help them improve their livelihoods and become independent," said Danya Kattan. "But the results of this project go beyond the financial gains. These women are eager to move this project forward and we will do our best to help them."

By Dana Sleiman in Beirut, Lebanon

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Cold, Uncomfortable and Hungry in Calais

For years, migrants and asylum-seekers have flocked to the northern French port of Calais in hopes of crossing the short stretch of sea to find work and a better life in England. This hope drives many to endure squalid, miserable conditions in makeshift camps, lack of food and freezing temperatures. Some stay for months waiting for an opportunity to stow away on a vehicle making the ferry crossing.

Many of the town's temporary inhabitants are fleeing persecution or conflict in countries such as Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iraq, Sudan and Syria. And although these people are entitled to seek asylum in France, the country's lack of accommodation, administrative hurdles and language barrier, compel many to travel on to England where many already have family waiting.

With the arrival of winter, the crisis in Calais intensifies. To help address the problem, French authorities have opened a day centre as well as housing facilities for women and children. UNHCR is concerned with respect to the situation of male migrants who will remain without shelter solutions. Photographer Julien Pebrel recently went to Calais to document their lives in dire sites such as the Vandamme squat and next to the Tioxide factory.

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Abdu finds his voice in Germany

When bombs started raining down on Aleppo, Syria, in 2012, the Khawan family had to flee. According to Ahmad, the husband of Najwa and father of their two children, the town was in ruins within 24 hours.

The family fled to Lebanon where they shared a small flat with Ahmad's two brothers and sisters and their children. Ahmad found sporadic work which kept them going, but he knew that in Lebanon his six-year-old son, Abdu, who was born deaf, would have little chance for help.

The family was accepted by Germany's Humanitarian Assistance Programme and resettled into the small central German town of Wächtersbach, near Frankfurt am Main. Nestled in a valley between two mountain ranges and a forest, the village has an idyllic feel.

A year on, Abdu has undergone cochlear implant surgery for the second time. He now sports two new hearing aids which, when worn together, allow him to hear 90 per cent. He has also joined a regular nursery class, where he is learning for the first time to speak - German in school and now Arabic at home. Ahmed is likewise studying German in a nearby village, and in two months he will graduate with a language certificate and start looking for work. He says that he is proud at how quickly Abdu is learning and integrating.

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A Teenager in Exile

Like fathers and sons everywhere, Fewaz and Malak sometimes struggle to coexist. A new haircut and a sly cigarette are all it takes to raise tensions in the cramped apartment they currently call home. But, despite this, a powerful bond holds them together: refugees from Syria, they have been stranded for almost a year in an impoverished neighbourhood of Athens.

They fled their home with the rest of the family in the summer of 2012, after war threw their previously peaceful life into turmoil. From Turkey, they made several perilous attempts to enter Greece.

Thirteen-year-old Malak was the first to make it through the Evros border crossing. But Fewaz, his wife and their two other children were not so lucky at sea, spending their life savings on treacherous voyages on the Mediterranean only to be turned back by the Greek coastguard.

Finally, on their sixth attempt, the rest of the family crossed over at Evros. While his wife and two children travelled on to Germany, Fewaz headed to Athens to be reunited with Malak.

"When I finally saw my dad in Athens, I was so happy that words can't describe," says Malak. However, the teenager is haunted by the possibility of losing his father again. "I am afraid that if my dad is taken, what will I do without him?"

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