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Newcomer Kitchen project gives Syrian refugees a taste of home in Toronto Add to ...

Project brings women together where they can cook, make money and regain a sense of community

Four-year-old Jore Almasri poses outside the Depanneur, where her mom is inside taking cooking with other Syrian women. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Sinaa Fakhereddin does not like eggs. She makes that clear to a kitchen full of strangers when she is asked to add an egg to the pot on the stove. Never in her life has she made sauce with eggs and she’s not about to start now. The other women are tense, not willing to argue with a 67-year-old woman who has seen more and done more than any of them.

“Mom, just add the egg. It doesn’t matter,” mutters 27-year-old Muhammed Aboura, laughing.

Ms. Fakhereddin arrived in Toronto just a week ago to join her son, who has been here a year. The two are Syrian refugees sponsored by members of the United Church of Canada, and they are keenly aware that they haven’t gone through the hardships that many others in the kitchen have, most of whom are on government assistance.

Mr. Aboura is just relieved to have his mother here, safe and protected from the Syrian regime. “I got to eat my mother’s cooking for the first time in three years last week. I couldn’t stop crying,” he says.

He watches her carefully, ready to jump in and help communicate if necessary. He spent time researching how to help newly arrived women adjust to life in Canada, and it led him to the Newcomer Kitchen.

Members of the Syrian refugee community gathered at The Depanneur to prepare and cook traditional Syrian meals. This is the first Ramadan for those who have settled in Canada so they won't be able to partake of what they cooked. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Len Senater runs the Depanneur, an informal kitchen in Toronto’s Annex area hosting culinary experiments of all kind. His newest project was founded on a simple idea: bringing Syrian women into a large, shared kitchen so that they could cook meals for their families while they were stuck in hotels on arrival.

In the few weeks since it began, the idea has expanded into a weekly pop-up event, made open to the public.

“By leveraging the popularity of pop-up dining, we’re clearing the path to the amazing latent talent that is in this community, so they can find a way to monetize their skills in a way that is dignified and equitable,” Mr. Senater says.

Every Thursday, the Newcomer Kitchen hosts 10 to 12 women, sometimes with children in tow, to cook a set amount of meals that are put up for sale and to socialize. The 48 or so meals have sold out in less than three hours. Each cook takes home about $15 an hour for her hard work, as well as a portion of the food to feed her family.

Mr. Senater even sells a weekly “guest chef” ticket for people who want to work alongside the women and learn from them.

“The Syrian cultural tradition is among of the oldest in the history of the world. This is the cradle of civilization, the birthplace of agriculture, the foundational cuisine of the Western world,” he says. “This incredible wealth of heritage and knowledge and skill is not owned by chefs or restaurants. It’s owned by mothers and grandmothers and their mothers and generations of women who make these dishes.”

The project is especially poignant, as many Syrians celebrate their first Ramadan in Canada this month. The hours are gruelling – adults don’t eat or drink for almost 17 hours a day – and for many of them, the isolation is the hardest part.

The kitchen usually rings with Syrian music, but in respect for those observing Ramadan, it echoes only with the sounds of clanking pots and loud chatter this week. The only external interruptions come from trucks loudly turning the corner outside the open door, or from someone’s cellphone ringing out the call to prayer.

Len Senater's newest project was founded on a simple idea: bringing Syrian women into a large, shared kitchen so that they could cook meals for their families while they were stuck in hotels on arrival.

The menu for this particular day includes shishbarak, crunchy meat and onion dumplings in a creamy yogurt-based sauce, and fasolia bel zait, green beans slow-cooked in a flavourful tomato sauce. Both are served with a side of rice and vermicelli, and a traditional light potato salad. Dessert is nammoura, a semolina cake carefully massaged with lemon-infused sugar syrup and garnished with almonds.

Volunteer Roula Ajib is tasked with the challenge of gathering these women from around the city, crowdsourcing a menu and getting them to cook in the standard Syrian manner.

Ms. Ajib facilitates communication between the women, who don’t speak any English, and volunteers, who don’t speak any Arabic. She is everywhere at once – a pot passed this way, an ingredient found in this cabinet, a pie lifter switched out for a serving spoon – with a loving, understanding smile.

Mrs. Ajib has lived in Canada for three years, and she remembers well how hard her first Ramadan here was.

“Fasting itself isn’t hard. After the second day, you get used to it,” she says. “Ramadan is nicer in [the Middle Eastern] community. All of your country is celebrating, even Christians. There are lights on all the houses, mosques, churches. People go to the stone ovens to make their own bread.”

“The most magical thing is gathering friends and family. The sound of the adhan [call to worship]. People waiting on their balconies to hear the sound of the cannon [signalling Maghrib, when they can break the fast]. I miss those things.”

Her reminiscence is cut short when she quickly asks someone to add an egg here, chop the green beans this way. This is her Everest, trying to gently coax the women out of their comfort zone, the recipes ingrained in them, into a more democratically chosen set of instructions.

“It’s what food and religion have in common,” Mr. Senater says. “Every village, every valley, every province has a different way of doing things, and everyone has the only right way.”

The women, ranging in age from 25 to 72, come from every corner of Syria and every camp outside it. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

The day’s cooks handle unfamiliar tools with the confidence of warriors. Older women shove the younger ones aside to show them how to knead the dough, how to throw your body into the rolling pin, how to stuff dumplings generously and evenly. They delicately carve green beans in half with wieldy butcher knives. As pounds and pounds of onions are chopped and the men have to leave the kitchen to avoid the sting, their eyes barely water.

Some of them break into nervous giggles as a plastic tray, mistakenly placed in the oven, emerges a melted mess. There were at least 50 fresh dumplings on there, now gone to waste. No matter. Everyone moves on quickly, making more.

The women, ranging in age from 25 to 72, come from every corner of Syria and every camp outside it. Some have never heard of each other’s home villages, but know exactly which intersection of Toronto they live on now.

They talk about their lives, argue intensely about ingredients, trade survival tips to hack the lives they’ve been given into something resembling the lives they miss.

One explains how to make cheap laban, a Middle Eastern form of strained yogurt that is more tangy than the variety found in the market. Another quietly talks about how frustrating her husband’s inactivity makes her, while her companion sympathetically clicks her tongue and talks about her husband leaving her after they moved to Toronto. “Problems,” she says by way of explanation. “Too much problems.”

The women don’t have very much in common, but some things they all agree on. Such as eating meat-based dishes for two days, followed by a day of being vegetarian to cleanse the system, in the Levantine tradition. They all know that Ramadan is about family. They smile wistfully when they talk about theirs, left behind in fragments all over the Middle East.

“My sister loves me so much,” says Mayada Alzaal, 34, who moved here with her husband and five children in January. “She knew I couldn’t cook very well, so she would bring all my favourite foods to me, precooked, whenever we had iftar [a meal served at the end of the day during Ramadan, to break the day’s fast].”

Ms. Alzaal’s days are different now. Neither she nor her husband, both former teachers, has a job yet. Their two-bedroom apartment in Etobicoke is far too tight for a family of their size, and she says her neighbour has been complaining about the noise since the day they moved in.

Every Thursday, the Newcomer Kitchen hosts 10 to 12 women, sometimes with children in tow, to cook a set amount of meals that are put up for sale and to socialize.

She feels that she has more dignity here than at her camp in Jordan, but only barely.

The Newcomer Kitchen project came to fruition thanks to Esmaeel Aboufakher, 28, and his wife of just a year, Rahaf Alakbani, 25, who met Mr. Senater at a fundraiser.

The two were the last to be matched with a residential space in the wave of government-sponsored refugees brought to Toronto, as preference was given to people with more children. They created a small ad hoc community of everyone they met in the first hotel they stayed at, and the next, and stayed in touch with everyone. It was easy to pull together women with that kind of link, sidestepping the bureaucracy that often holds such projects back.

Mr. Senater believes that the project is much bigger than the Depanneur itself. The Newcomer Kitchen catered at the Luminato festival last weekend, an opportunity to kickstart a FundRazr campaign to establish a standalone kitchen for these women. Mr. Senater wants the success of his initiative to serve as a playbook, capable of being replicated in any kitchen willing to open its doors to migrant women around the country and the rest of the world.

For now, it helps new Toronto residents such as Ms. Fakhereddin, who discreetly tastes the fare to make sure that the seasoning is up to par with her own standards. She prays five times a day, but her age prevents her from being able to fast, much as she wants to.

She already speaks quite a bit of English, even as she complains that her son, the former English instructor, won’t teach her to speak more.

Is it tough to adjust to the new lifestyle?

“My mom was a rebel. She was the only woman who didn’t wear the hijab in her little town, and I’m openly gay, so I was a rebel too,” says Mr. Aboura, who is no longer supervising his mom so he can roll some dough himself. “She’ll get there. She’s a tough woman.”

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