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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Jihan's Story

Like millions, 34-year-old Jihan was willing to risk everything in order to escape war-torn Syria and find safety for her family. Unlike most, she is blind.

Nine months ago, she fled Damascus with her husband, Ashraf, 35, who is also losing his sight. Together with their two sons, they made their way to Turkey, boarding a boat with 40 others and setting out on the Mediterranean Sea. They hoped the journey would take eight hours. There was no guarantee they would make it alive.

After a treacherous voyage that lasted 45 hours, the family finally arrived at a Greek island in the Aegean Sea, called Milos - miles off course. Without support or assistance, they had to find their own way to Athens.

The police detained them for four days upon their arrival. They were cautioned to stay out of Athens, as well as three other Greek cities, leaving them stranded.

By now destitute and exhausted, the family were forced to split up - with Ashraf continuing the journey northwards in search of asylum and Jihan taking their two sons to Lavrion, an informal settlement about an hour's drive from the Greek capital.

Today, Jihan can only wait to be reunited with her husband, who has since been granted asylum in Denmark. The single room she shares with her two sons, Ahmed, 5, and Mohammad, 7, is tiny, and she worries about their education. Without an urgent, highly complex corneal transplant, her left eye will close forever.

"We came here for a better life and to find people who might better understand our situation," she says, sadly. "I am so upset when I see how little they do [understand]."

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