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

• DONATE NOW •

 

• GET INVOLVED • • STAY INFORMED •

UNHCR country pages

The Charcoal Boys: Child Labour in Lebanon

Bebnine is one of many small towns in northern Lebanon that have seen an influx of Syrian refugees in recent months. Many of the new residents are children, whose education has been disrupted. A lot of them must work to support their families instead of studying to lay the foundations for a bright future. This set of photographs by Andrew McConnell, documents one group of boys who risk their health by working for a charcoal seller in Bebnine. Aged between 11 and 15 years old, they earn the equivalent of less than 70 US cents an hour filling, weighing and carrying sacks of charcoal. It's hard work and after an average eight-hour day they are covered in charcoal dust. Throughout the region, an estimated one in ten Syrian refugee children is engaged in child labour.

The Charcoal Boys: Child Labour in Lebanon

For Starters, a Tent: A Syrian Teacher Opens a School in Jordan

In the semi-rural area of Kherbet Al-Souk, on the outskirts of Amman, Syrian refugees struggling to get their children into crowded state schools have taken matters into their own hands. They have set up a simple school in their small informal settlement of about 500 refugees. The families had lived in Za'atri or Al-Aghwar camps, but moved out to be closer to other relatives and to access basic services in the capital. But ensuring education for all refugee children in Jordan has proved difficult for the government and its partners, including UNHCR. According to the UN, more than half of all Syrian refugee children in Jordan are not in school. In Kherbet Al-Souk, the refugee-run school consists of a large tent where the students sit on the ground with their text books. All of the students take classes together with the younger children in the front. Before, they spent a lot of time playing, but they were not learning anything. One refugee, Jamal, decided to do something about it. Photographer Shawn Baldwin met Jamal and visited the school in a tent. These are some of the images he took.

For Starters, a Tent: A Syrian Teacher Opens a School in Jordan

A Face in a Million: the Struggle of Syria's Refugees in Lebanon

They are everywhere in Lebanon - 1 million Syrian refugees, in a land of 4.8 million people. There are no refugee camps in Lebanon. Instead, most rent apartments and others live in makeshift shelters and in garages, factories and prisons. Three years after the Syria crisis began, Lebanon has become the country with the highest concentration per capita of refugees in the world. It's struggling to keep pace with the influx. Rents have spiked, accommodation is scarce; food prices are rising. Meanwhile, a generation could be lost. Half of Syria's refugees are children; most don't go to school. Instead many of them work to help their families survive. Some marry early, others must beg to make a bit of money. Yet they share the same dream of getting an education.

In the northern city of Tripoli, many of the Syrians live in Al Tanak district, dubbed "Tin City." Long home to poor locals, it is now a surreal suburb - garbage piled to one side, a Ferris wheel on the other. The inhabitants share their dwellings with rats. "They're as big as cats," said one. "They're not scared of us, we're scared of them."

Award-winning photojournalist Lynsey Addario visited Tin City and other areas of Lebanon with UNHCR to show the faces and suffering of Syrians to the world. Addario, in publications such as The New York Times and National Geographic, has highlighted the victims of conflict and rights abuse around the world, particularly women.

A Face in a Million: the Struggle of Syria's Refugees in Lebanon

Jordan: High Commissioner visits a struggling Syrian familyPlay video

Jordan: High Commissioner visits a struggling Syrian family

A new UNHCR report reveals that over 145,000 Syrian refugee families in Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq are headed by women alone. UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres paid a visit to Awah, who is raising her children on her own in Amman.
Lebanon: Fadia's StoryPlay video

Lebanon: Fadia's Story

A former nurse, Fadia found life as a refugee in Lebanon to be especially difficult without employment. She counts herself lucky to be living in a shelter paid for by aid agencies, but food and other necessities are harder to come by. Fadia's is one of 145,000 Syrian families in Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and Iraq headed by women. Poverty, isolation and fear of exploitation are just some of the hardships they face.
The Fight for Survival – Syrian Women AlonePlay video

The Fight for Survival – Syrian Women Alone

Lina has not heard from her husband since he was detained in Syria two years ago. Now a refugee in Lebanon, she lives in a tented settlement with her seven children.