As a child of first generation immigrants I can recall running in and out of the kitchen while my mother and her friends cooked colorful basmati rice, goat meat and chicken steak. Whether the occasions was a wedding, funeral, Eid, or Ramadan they created dishes with fierce pride and beauty. They laughed a lot. Somewhere between cutting up onions and mixing up African spices they would always talk about the old country, their new lives in Canada, and their children. Something about each of these little gatherings felt like worship and the outcome was always the same – soul food. It was in those moments that my young mother and her friends would be aglow with life in a way that I wish people who didn’t speak Somali could see and feel. So when I learned of an organization that had figured out a way to take Syrian cooking, storytelling and community-building to a larger audience I caught up with the Nihal Elwan to learn more about this badass initiative.
When Nihal Elwan, a Vancouver-based consultant, isn’t working on international development programs, she’s serving up meals through Tayybeh: a Celebration of Syrian Cuisine, a pop-up kitchen where refugee women host a rare cultural exchange.
Tayybeh has an all female chef brigade of Umm Omar, Rawaa, Leena, Ragdah and Um Hassan who each serve up dishes from their respective hometowns. The organizations first pop-up dinner was hosted at the Tamam Palestinian Restaurant in October 2016, once Elwan was able to secure a $500 grant from the Vancouver Foundations program. Elwan states since the launch the pop-up kitchen “strives to be a support system for any Syrian woman looking for a community.”
The organization has sold out dinners with attendees signing up for the opportunity to meet the female chefs, learn about their hopes for their new lives in Canada, and eat the authentic Syrian dishes they skillfully prepare. The menu includes Kibbeh with Pistachio a ground beef meat roll with spices and pistachio. As well as Freekeh a grain topped with Chicken, and Kunafah an angle haired pastry stuffed with cheese and topped with syrup. They also have catered dinners with all-vegan and gluten-free options such as the Moussakah dish which features baked eggplant, potatoes and tomatoes. The Vancouver Women’s Festival, Food Connections and The North Shore Women’s Centre are amongst the eager clientele. All proceeds from the dinners go to the women and their families.
Nihal, it has been six years since the start of the Syrian crisis and much is still written about the displaced people. Why do you think Tayybeh has resonated with so many people?
NE: The Syrian war and refugee crisis is one of the great tragedies of our current period. Millions of Syrians driven away from their homes to seek safety, shelter and opportunity are scattered all over the world. Because the conflict there is an international one, the world has a direct responsibility to the Syrian people. This is part of the reason so many people around the world, and especially here in Canada, have stepped up to support Syrians.
Tayybeh grew out of this spirit of giving that has become characteristic of Canadian society. But that said, the real passion for Tayybeh comes from a combination of things. The first is the food, which is absolutely exquisite. Syrian cuisine is delicious and diverse and keeps bringing people back to Tayybeh. The second reason is that Tayybeh is the success stories – the living examples of how women can become the primary breadwinners of their families mere months after arriving in a new country. And the third reason is that Tayybeh is about community. While Vancouverites are looking for ways of meeting new people and building friendships, Syrian newcomers are also hoping to build social networks in their new city and neighborhoods. Tayybeh hopes to build community by connecting the two. In the end it is all about the love for food and community. That is what Tayybeh is about, like the word itself kindness and deliciousness rolled into one!
How has Tayybeh changed the lives of the women you work with?
NE: Working with Tayybeh has had a significant impact on the lives of the women chefs. For all of them this is their first time working and earning an income. The independence this has given them is indescribable. For many newcomers, it is easy to find oneself isolated and lonely. The women of Tayybeh are meeting new people, criss-crossing the city and discovering their neighbourhoods. Given how difficult their last few years have been with so much tragedy and misery, their confidence is on the rise and their self-esteem is wonderful to watch. Many of them are working in teams for the first time and getting used to collaboration. But most importantly, it is the happiness and excitement on their faces when they succeed that is priceless. If giving them an opportunity to make some money and putting an occasional smile on their faces is all Tayybeh can do for these wonderful Syrian chefs, then it would have all been worthwhile.
What is a question people don’t always ask you about Tayybeh?
NE:… Perhaps the reward for me, as someone who has been in the area of development and gender for the past decade, there is no greater pleasure for me than to see these women succeed and see their dreams of a better future in a new city and new home come true. This is what making a difference really means. In the same way that they are happy and fortunate to be part of Tayybeh, I also feel very much enriched by this experience. Working with the women of Tayybeh has been one of the loveliest experiences I have had professionally. While it is hard work, I wake up excited about Tayybeh every day!
As Nihal Elwan goes on to explain, to date the women have received basic food certification and offers of more catering jobs have slowly started to come in. For me these Tayyebh (kind) women had done something miraculous in a short period of time. They have taken that colorful and spirited kitchen from my childhood and invited the country to dinner. In doing so, they have honored the beauty in the everyday lives of newcomer women everywhere.
The pop up cafe has facebook page Tayybeh: A Celebration of Syrian Cuisine. Do yourself a favour and check it out.