Food from the heart offers a different perspective on Syria

Summary

Antwerp women’s catering collective aims to change views through the shared language of a good meal

The way to the heart

“We’re about changing mindsets around the word ‘Syria’, the word ‘refugee’ and the word ‘woman’,” says Yara Al Adib, a woman from Damascus now living in Antwerp.

They may sound like lofty goals, but with the help of three fellow Syrian refugee women, Al Adib believes that, little by little, they are reaching them. Not through political campaigning or protest, but through something that’s dear to the hearts of Syrians and Belgians alike: food.

Along with her compatriots Abeer Tarakji, from Damascus, Ahlam Khatib, from Homs, and Sabah Fadhel, from Aleppo, the 28-year-old has established an Antwerp-based catering collective called From Syria With Love.

Her mission is to empower the women, provide them with a purpose and small income, help them give back to local society, and project a positive image of their home through something they can do “with passion”.

“In Syria, food is a very, very important social aspect of life. It’s something people really put a lot of time in to,” Al Adib (pictured, second left) explains. “At home, my mum would wake up and make her coffee, then start preparing – very slowly – the lunch, our main meal of the day. We take time over it, we value quality, and everything is in season. We don’t have avocados from Guatemala!”

Praise from the top

Having been through the Belgian immigration process, Al Adib – who arrived speaking fluent English, had a job and experience of living abroad – would see newly arrived Syrians around her and wonder how they were coping.

“I thought, ‘if this is difficult for me, how difficult is it for these mothers who are away from home, not knowing the language or having the skills to make it here?’. I had an idea to help by combining Syria, women and food. Then I found the others randomly: I met Ahlam on the train, Sabah on Facebook, and Abeer through a friend.”

Every time I said I was Syrian, people gave me this pity feeling and it kind of got on my nerves. I needed to show the positive side, the real side that people don’t know

- Yara Al Adib

In the beginning the group served up platters of hummus, falafel, kibbeh, shish beraak (“Syrian ravioli”) or date-filled pastries to people in their circle of friends. After an appearance on VRT they were invited to cook with top Antwerp chef Seppe Nobels, of Graanmarkt 13, for a series on migrants in De Morgen, and things started to take off.

“Cooking with him was a nice feeling,” Al Adib says. “The women were waiting for him to give his opinion on the dishes, and he loved them!”

Recent bookings have included catering for up to 200 people at events hosted by NGOs, as well as weddings, baptisms and private parties.

“The women didn’t have much self-confidence at first, but this work means they are integrating on a really personal level,” Al Adib says. “A lot of people are interested in learning about Syria. And to do this through food is the cherry on top.”

Staying positive

Having a purpose means they no longer feel the burden of being a refugee, which Al Adib describes as “like a schooling system that makes you a bit depressed”. “Every time I said I was Syrian, people gave me this pity feeling and it kind of got on my nerves. I needed to show the positive side, the real side that people don’t know.”

But it’s not all rainbows and sunshine, she says. “I know a lot of the time we are together the women are not really with me; their heads are stuck at home. They are worried about their siblings or their parents. Sometimes they get homesick and they feel guilty that they are here. But keeping busy is a good way to stop your mind from thinking.

“A lot of them say ‘yeah I want to go back’… but they have kids who are well integrated now. They all came here by boat via Turkey or Greece – they have already jeopardised their family once and now they are safe. But deep inside they are yearning.”

Every time they talk about their journey, she adds, “they just fall apart. But I try to always stay positive, there’s no point in dwelling on the past.”