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Food & Wine Heart of the home: Why the kitchen is my focus in welcoming a Syrian refugee family

Syrian immigrant Najwa Habood is helping settle refugees in Calgary, her home of 25 years. Her pantry staples include basmati rice, lentils, bulgur and dried mint.

Chris Bolin/The Globe and Mail

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about tea – about what a hot cup of a favourite brew can represent to refugees who have just landed in Canada after years away from home.

I am part of a sponsorship group that is going to help settle a family of Syrian refugees in Toronto. As the sponsors, we have to set up a home for them before they arrive, then help them with everything from doctor visits to finding schools and jobs when they get here.

Our group has been matched with a family of four, who left their town outside Damascus nearly three years ago and have been living as refugees in a crowded apartment in Amman ever since. They are eager to get here. Ahmed (I've changed his name), the father in the family, calls Canada his "only hope for a better life."

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We don't know when they are arriving, but we are scrambling to set up a home for them so they can start their Canadian life as soon as they step off the plane. For me, the kitchen is the heart of a home, so I've been focusing excessively on setting up their kitchen and pantry. I can just imagine their first meal in their own apartment, surrounded by the aromas of home-cooked food, feeling safe after hours of travel and years of being rootless. I know that acclimatizing to a new culture is more complicated than having the right brand of tea, but it's a small start.

Six years ago, Ghinwa Alameen set up her website Syrian Cooking to show off the range of Syrian food and to connect with her homeland. She says that the cuisine is similar to Lebanese and Jordanian, influenced by many Silk Road cultures including Turkish, Armenian and Jewish. A typical meal might consist of small dishes called mezes, plus salads, a stew made from vegetables and meat and a small sweet at the end.

In the past few months, Alameen (who lives in Iowa) has been overwhelmed with requests from Canada and Britain on how to set up a kitchen for refugees. She's created a specific section on her website with pantry and equipment lists in English, French and Arabic, where she lists items such as bulgur and pomegranate molasses, plus photos of the typical tea set.

In Toronto, Hani Tawli is the manager at Adonis, a Syrian grocery in east-end Scarborough. He proudly shows off the many Syrian ingredients lining the store shelves.

The hard-to-find seven-spice powder used in meat dishes is displayed right near large bags of sumac, a lemony herb, and za'atar, a thyme mixture used as a finishing spice or sprinkled on pita.

Tawli, who has been in Canada for three years, says Syrian food relies on craftsmanship and tradition. Recipes are handed down from one matriarch to the next and cooking is often a neighbourhood affair. Many of the dishes take hours to prepare and generations of women work in the kitchen together to make a meal.

"It's different in Canada, but you have to learn to adapt," he says. "And I'm proud that people can come here and get whatever they need, whether they are cooking Middle Eastern, European or Canadian food."

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Najwa Habood of Calgary has been in Canada for 25 years, immigrating here when she was just 15 years old. Most of the meals she prepares for her three kids are Syrian, as a way of staying connected to her first home. She recommends a pantry full of staples such as pitas, basmati rice, chickpeas, lentils, bulgur, dried mint and garlic, plus lots of plain yogurt and halal meat.

Labneh is a necessity in Syrian kitchens. It is yogurt that is salted and strained through a cheesecloth – or a pillowcase, says Habood, who mentions that I have to be careful to avoid yogurt with gelatin, as that may not be halal. Some Canadian stores carry labneh, but if not, families make their own with Balkan yogurt, so I'll make sure to have lots of that.

Habood says finding ingredients isn't generally difficult, but most things don't taste as they did at home. "We have a saying that 'the miles make the coffee taste different,'" says Habood, who works as a medical assistant. Syrian coffee is similar to Turkish coffee and is sometimes made with cardamom. "Even when I buy the coffee in Syria and then bring it home and make it, it isn't as good," she says.

Which leads back to the tea. Tea is a big part of Syrian culture and Ahmed has already told me his wife loves to drink tea throughout the day. Syrians drink Ceylon tea, which is sometimes boiled with sugar and served in small glass cups. Habood is adamant that it should be Horsehead brand tea, but Tawli thinks Lipton would be just fine. For his part, Ahmed is bewildered when I ask him what his family needs and wants in the kitchen.

"We will manage," he says through our interpreter. "Coming to Canada fills us with hope."

When Ahmed and his family arrive, perhaps I will bring Ceylon tea with me to the airport to greet them. When they walk into the apartment, I will have some fatteh hommos (a dish of chickpeas, bread and yogurt) and burner esbao (a lentil stew) waiting. It may not be their family recipe, but I hope it's food they will recognize and that will bring them comfort while they settle into their new home.

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