Iftar meals bring spirit of Ramadan to struggling refugees

In Lebanon and Jordan, providing daily meals gives a sense of community back to refugees fasting in the holy month of Ramadan.

Volunteers scoop rice into food containers at the Ramadan Kitchen in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley.
© UNHCR/Houssam Hariri

BEKAA VALLEY, Lebanon – As the sun sinks, the Ramadan Kitchen in Lebanon’s fertile Bekaa Valley is a hive of activity, buzzing with the sounds of clanging pots and pans, food being packaged into plastic containers and the laughter and chatter of a hundred cooks and volunteers.

In a nearby settlement lives 52-year-old Mona, a Syrian mother of seven who fled the fighting in Homs three years ago. She and her family stand outside their plywood shelter waiting for the van from Ramadan Kitchen that will bring their evening iftar meal, which marks the breaking of their daily fast.

The holy month of Ramadan, which is expected to conclude on Sunday with the festival of Eid al-Fitr, is traditionally a time for reflection and gathering among families and communities across the Muslim world, as well as for acts of solidarity and generosity.

In Lebanon, which currently hosts 1.01 million registered Syrian refugees in a total population of just 5.9 million, the NGO SAWA for Development and Aid established the Ramadan Kitchen in 2014 to provide iftar meals to thousands of refugees and needy locals each day during the holy month.

'Ramadan Kitchen' serves up iftar meals to refugees (Rima Cherri, producer / Houssam Hariri, camera)

The kitchen is funded mainly through individual charitable donations during Ramadan, and staffed by an army of up to 100 chefs and helpers each day, including local volunteers and Syrian refugees themselves.

“I love helping people. I don’t like to see people in need, regardless of their nationality,” says Doaa Rhim, a 24-year-old Lebanese woman who has worked at the kitchen for the past two years. She also works as a volunteer teacher at a nearby informal school for Syrian refugee children.

“I come to the Kitchen every day after class in the bus that drops off the children to do anything I can to help, from washing the vegetables to cooking or even packaging,” Doaa added.

“I love helping people. I don’t like to see people in need, regardless of their nationality."

The van pulls up outside Mona’s shelter and delivers the day’s meal, which includes dates, meat pies and salad, and a main course of rice topped with chicken and nuts.

With 71 per cent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon living below the poverty line, and more than a third suffering moderate to severe food insecurity, Mona said the meals they receive help to bring some sense of normalcy to the family during the month of Ramadan.

“It is so essential for us, especially when we cannot afford to cook, to receive this meal already made and delivered to us.”

While the countries neighbouring Syria are currently home to more than five million refugees from the six-year conflict, the region is also host to refugees from other parts of the Muslim world.

Elham (left) and her daughter Raghed (right) are from Sana'a, in Yemen. They break the Ramadan fast at the Al Amal Orphan Society, in Amman, Jordan.   © UNHCR/Benoit Almeras

Earlier this week in the Jordanian capital, Amman, refugees and asylum seekers from Yemen, Sudan, Somalia and Eritrea gathered one evening to share an iftar of national dishes they had prepared themselves. The event was held at a local community centre run by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and NGO International Relief and Development.

Elham arrived in Jordan four months ago with her daughter Raghad, 10, having fled the fighting in Yemen’s capital Sana’a. As she sat chatting and eating with other women in the warm courtyard, Elham described what she and her daughter had endured the previous year.

“Last Ramadan we didn’t have electricity or much food, and there were missiles falling overhead."

“Last Ramadan we didn’t have electricity or much food, and there were missiles falling overhead. Sometimes, just as we were about to break our fast, I would hear a missile and have to run for cover fearing for my daughter’s life,” she said.

As she passed around the sweet pastries filled with soft cheese that she had made, Elham said coming together for iftar with others had helped bring back happier memories of past Ramadans.

“Tonight is something more special than usual, and I loved trying the foods from different countries,” she said. “When the next Ramadan comes around, wherever we are I just hope that my daughter is going to school again, and maybe I can continue my university studies somewhere.”

Additional reporting by Charlie Dunmore in Amman, Jordan