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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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.

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