Athens Foodfest showcases the culinary magic of refugee chefs

Athens in June is not normally a place where you would want to spend time in a basement kitchen. But that’s where a group of creative chefs were happy to spend their time to help highlight the plight of the displaced and mark World Refugee Day (June 20) in Greece.

They worked their culinary magic in five popular restaurants in Athens, joining a venture that began in 2016 in France through a partnership between the non-governmental organization Food Sweet Food and UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. This year, the experiment went Europe-wide in June 2017, aiming to change perceptions towards refugees by allowing locals to discover international flavours and meet the men and women behind them – ambassadors of their culture.

For the first Athens edition, which was organized by the Athens Insider team and supported by civil society organizations, five Greek chefs welcomed skilled refugee cooks into their kitchens; Mahboubek Tavakoli from Iran, Barshank Haj Younes and Abdulrahman Al Hallak from Syria, Hassan Hassan from Somalia and Afghan Reza Golami.

They all left their countries because they had no other choice. Some, like Abdulrahman, were already professional cooks and restaurant owners back home. Others, like Hassan and Reza, perfected their craft and began working professionally during their stay in Greece. All of them share a profound love of cooking and a strong belief in the potential of gastronomy as a cultural bridge.

Judging by the response to their creations in Athens, they were successful. All five restaurants were booked out and some ran extra days. The cooks received rave reviews from their customers, who praised the originality, authenticity and emotional impact of the menus.

Demand for 25-year-old Hassan Hassan’s Greek and Somali food was so popular that the Vassilenas Restaurant added two more nights.

Hassan fled Somalia nine years ago, when his life was in danger. He had developed a love for cooking when he had to take care of his three younger siblings, who remain in Somalia with their parents. He says he became addicted to seeing their smiles when they ate his food.

In Greece, he joined a cookery school and, with the financial help of friends, he passed his exams. He started working as an assistant chef in Crete before moving to Athens and working at a sushi bar in an upscale part of the capital.

The young man still feels a debt of gratitude to locals and organizations for helping him after he first arrived in Greece. “Hassan was 16 at the time. All alone and traumatized. We helped him reach organizations that could provide him accommodation and social support,” recalls Daphne Kapetanaki, UNHCR Assistant Protection Officer.

“We soon realized that Hassan was a resilient and gifted young man with dreams and aspirations. His story shows that when appropriate support and access to services and education is facilitated for refugees, their full potential blooms,” she adds.

Today, Hassan also works part-time as an interpreter, making himself useful, if not indispensable, to members of the small Somali community in Athens. But he stresses that his mind and heart are set – the kitchen is his holy place and he is determined to become a full time chef.

To that end, his nights at Vassilenas were a triumph. He felt loved, appreciated and happy to be able to bring something from his old home to his new one.


By: Christos Tolis