Empowered Cooking in Refugee Camps
Though political situations remain in flux in the Middle East, there is a positive presence that is helping to empower marginalized populations, break down cultural barriers and provide opportunities for economic and social well-being: food. Three non-profit projects — Atayeb Falastine, the Syrian Refugee Cooking Line Development Program (Atayeb Zaman), and the NOOR Women’s Empowerment Group — all use food as a business tool to communicate shared culinary traditions that are sometimes lost in conflict.
Souk el Tayeb’s (Countlan Issue 05) founder, Kamal Mouzawak launched Atayeb Falastine and the Syrian Refugee Cooking Line Development Program, two projects that work with women refugees to teach them how to commercialize food products while reviving their culinary traditions. “The ideas behind these programs originated from an old dream,” says Kamal. “To empower women in traditional societies to make a healthy life for the cook and her family; generate income in a simple way; bring back pride, recognition and a sense of need; and perpetuate authentic, traditional expressions as cuisine.” The programs work with teams of 25 women in food skills workshops that provide vocational training, recipe development, product marketing, and concludes with a key opportunity — access to distribution through Souk el Tayeb’s markets.
In 2009, Souk el Tayeb launched Tawlet in Beirut, and later in Ammiq, a farmers’ kitchen and social enterprise inviting women from different cultural backgrounds in Lebanon to cook together and share their culinary traditions while working with the ingredients that supports local farmers and producers.
Atayeb Falastine and the Atayeb Zaman are natural extensions of the kind of cross-cultural education efforts Kamal has worked on for a decade. They provide support for female entrepreneurship and integration of new arrivals into Lebanese society. “There is a need to promote the idea that ‘we can share food together,’ to get the women out of their ghettos and to help them better integrate in society, which will be the best way to get to know each other.” Early on, he approached the United Nations’ International Labour Organization to get involved with Atayeb Falastine, an organization that is already active in capacity building in Palestinian camps such as Ain El Helwe and Nahr el Bared in Lebanon. Together, they organized a charity lunch featuring traditional Palestinian dishes at Tawlet to raise money to upgrade a production kitchen.
As the project expanded to work with Syrian refugees and other migrant workers in Lebanon, additional partners such as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Caritas Lebanon Migrant Center came on board to help with financing and organization. Long-forgotten dishes surface and new recipes are surfacing as a result of Atayeb Falastine and Zaman. “The funniest part is when people of the same country get together,” says Kamal. “Among the Syrian refugees, people from one region of Syria would not necessarily know about certain older dishes from another region in Syria; here is where the ‘competition’ starts.” Despite differences in culinary traditions, Kamal insists “people are inherently the same with their fears, expectations, pride, and joy.”
Photo Source: Souk El Tayeb
In a similar vein, in Bethlehem, a group of mothers from the Aida and Al-Azzeh refugee camps started the NOOR Women’s Empowerment Group (NOOR WEG) in 2010, an organization that offers Palestinian cooking classes and home stays for international guests to learn about Palestinian life and cuisine. It also sells a cooking booklet called Zaaki: Tasty Palestinian Recipes from Our Kitchen in Aida Camp. The effort of these 13 women and their volunteers focuses on raising funds to support the care and education of their disabled children. “Besides having to deal with social stigma, we face economic issues that prevent our children from getting adequate care.
This club gave us a space to share ideas and opinions, and the opportunity to find solutions to our problems,” says Islam, NOOR WEG’s project coordinator. The group hopes to raise enough money to set up a small kindergarten for disabled children in the area. “Our first victory was to buy a large quantity of diapers from a factory in Hebron. By buying in bulk, we paid a much lower price. However, we realised that in order to provide educational and recreational activities for our disabled children, we needed to raise funds.” Visitors who attend one of the NOOR WEG’s Saturday lunch classes are treated to a feast of flavours and traditions. (For more on Palestinian cuisine, see below.)
It is projects like these that demonstrate the social, cultural, and economic goodness that can be created through empowering food experiences — truly worthy causes to celebrate and share.
Islam, Project Coordinator, NOOR WEG — On defining Palestinian food:
“If I had to define Palestinian food in just one word, I would say zaaki (delicious)! Palestinian food is rich in flavours and textures and it is very diverse. In Palestine, the same dish might be cooked differently depending on the area. Traditional dishes typically use local fresh vegetables, olive oil and condiments and herbs such as za’atar, turmeric, cumin, sumac, cardamom and cinnamon. Rice is also a staple in the Palestinian diet, usually imported from Egypt.
Traditional dishes are very elaborate and have been shared among women over generations. I learned to cook from my mother, who learned to cook from my grandmother, who learned to cook from my great-grandmother.
Photo Source: NOOR Women Empowerment Group
Sometimes when two or more Palestinian women take part in a cooking class, something funny happens: they do not agree how to cook the same dish. Despite the passionate discussions, one thing is for sure: no matter how we do it, it will always be zaaki!
Recipes To Try:
- An Edible Mosaic: Maftoul
- Shahiya: Musakhan: Chicken Onions and Brea
- The Gaza Kitchen: Tangy Kishik Stwe