Raghda Hassan is teaching me how to make yalanji.
With a dozen other people, I’ve signed up for a cooking class with Tayybeh, a food company run by Syrian refugee women. Since it launched with a pop-up dinner two years ago, Tayybeh – the word can be translated from Arabic as both “delicious” and “kind” – has branched out into catering and, over the summer, a food truck.
This is the company’s first cooking class. We’ve gathered at a community centre kitchen for instruction from Ms. Hassan, 41, and her 21-year-old daughter, Mariam. Ms. Hassan is one of seven cooks now working with Tayybeh. Her English is halting, but a Tayybeh co-ordinator is on hand to translate. Besides, Ms. Hassan teaches by example. There are no measuring cups, no written recipes.
We crowd around a small island and roll up our sleeves.
Yalanji are stuffed grape leaves, akin to Greek dolmathes. To make them, you roll the brined leaves from the top-down, then tuck the edges around the rice filling to form a tidy bundle. My first attempts are sloppy.
“Like this,” Ms. Hassan says as she shows me. My next attempt is perfect.
We make malfoof, a cabbage salad laced with sumac; sfeeha, open-faced meat pies; and fatayer, puffy dough triangles stuffed with cheese the women prepare themselves.
Tayybeh, with its Instagram feed and strangers eating together for a common cause, is a modern riff on a centuries-old pattern of immigrants and refugees cooking their way into a country’s culture. Similar ventures have emerged elsewhere; in Toronto, the Newcomer Kitchen sells meals cooked weekly by Syrian refugee women. One of Tayybeh’s recent catering jobs was a reception for a screening of Soufra, a film about a catering company founded by women in a refugee camp in Lebanon.
The common ingredients are women, food and hope.
Ms. Hassan and her family used to live near the port city of Latakia. They fled after bombing attacks intensified and relatives were injured or disappeared.
The family – Ms. Hassan, her husband and their four children – spent four years in Turkey before they arrived in Canada as government-sponsored refugees in late 2016.
She arrived the night of Tayybeh’s first dinner, a coincidence she now sees as a sign of hope. She joined the group soon after. The family lives in Surrey, B.C. Her husband, a former contractor, works in a hot-tub factory, and their children go to school.
The family was part of an unprecedented influx. Before taking office in 2015, the Liberals promised to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by the end of the year – a target that wasn’t met until February, 2016. But since November, 2015, Canada has admitted more than 58,000 Syrian refugees, who have settled in cities and towns across the country.
Our class takes place a few days before Canadian Thanksgiving. Does Syria have anything like Thanksgiving, someone asks? There’s a discussion about Eid al-Fitr, the festival that marks the end of Ramadan. Ms. Hassan shows us how to make rosettes from lemon peels.
Nihal Elwan, an international-development consultant and the spark plug behind Tayybeh, met Ms. Hassan and the other women while volunteering as a translator. She remembers them being haunted by grief and worry.
The women did not speak English. But they all knew how to cook.
Ms. Elwan arranged the first pop-up dinner in a friend’s restaurant. It sold out. Tayybeh grew, using social media to advertise. The women learned to take transit. Their husbands learned to help with clean-up.
Tayybeh gained a following. Christina Braybrooke, a cooking-class participant, has been to several dinners and hired the company to cater a family reunion this summer.
“Most people had never had Syrian food before, and of course I over-ordered,” Ms. Braybrooke says. “By the time people left, everybody was fighting over the leftovers.”
Another couple, Terry and Cheryl Murphy, are there because, so far, they haven’t been quick enough to buy tickets to a Tayybeh dinner. The cooking class seemed like a good alternative.
I ask them if they have strong feelings about refugees.
“Yes,” Mr. Murphy replies. “Strong, as in we believe strongly they should be here.”
Through Ms. Elwan, I later ask Ms. Hassan what she values most about Tayybeh.
“Tayybeh is my first work experience and it is a very successful step in my life,” Ms. Hassan responds. “It was the reason for me to get out of the house and learn everything about this city. Tayybeh also allowed me to contribute to my family’s income, and that makes me very happy and proud. The most significant and symbolic connection is I landed in Vancouver on the day of Tayybeh’s first pop-up dinner event. I feel that we’ve grown here together. Everyone leaves a mark in this life, and I hope to leave mine through Tayybeh."
After a couple of hours, we sit down to eat. The lighting is fluorescent, the chairs are plastic, and we opt for paper plates. Ms. Hassan has brought a tablecloth. Everybody gets leftovers and baklava for dessert.
It is delicious.