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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Stateless in Beirut

Since Lebanon was established as a country in the 1920s there has been a long-standing stateless population in the country.

There are three main causes for this: the exclusion of certain persons from the latest national census of 1932; legal gaps which deny nationality to some group of individuals; and administrative hurdles that prevent parents from providing proof of the right to citizenship of their newborn children.

Furthermore, a major reason why this situation continues is that under Lebanese law, Lebanese women cannot pass on their nationality to their children, only men can; meaning a child with a stateless father and a Lebanese mother will inherit their father's statelessness.

Although exact numbers are not known, it is generally accepted that many thousands of people lack a recognized nationality in Lebanon and the problem is growing due to the conflict in Syria. Over 50,000 Syrian children have been born in Lebanon since the beginning of the conflict and with over 1 million Syrian refugees in the country this number will increase.

Registering a birth in Lebanon is very complicated and for Syrian parents can include up to five separate administrative steps, including direct contact with the Syrian government. As the first step in establishing a legal identity, failure to properly register a child's birth puts him or her at risk of statelessness and could prevent them travelling with their parents back to Syria one day.

The consequences of being stateless are devastating. Stateless people cannot obtain official identity documents, marriages are not registered and can pass their statelessness on to their children Stateless people are denied access to public healthcare facilities at the same conditions as Lebanese nationals and are unable to own or to inherit property. Without documents they are unable to legally take jobs in public administrations and benefit from social security.

Children can be prevented from enrolling in public schools and are excluded from state exams. Even when they can afford a private education, they are often unable to obtain official certification.

Stateless people are not entitled to passports so cannot travel abroad. Even movement within Lebanon is curtailed, as without documents they risk being detained for being in the country unlawfully. They also do not enjoy basic political rights as voting or running for public office.

This is the story of Walid Sheikhmouss Hussein and his family from Beirut.

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According to UNHCR field staff most of the refugees are exhausted and arrive carrying just a few belongings. Some have walked for days. In recent days, people have fled directly to Akcakale to escape fighting in Tel Abyad which is currently reported to be calm.

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