As 2016 rapidly approaches, we can comfortably say that humanity has attained many a soaring feat not thought remotely possible even a few generations ago. Which makes it all the more bitter that 2015 also marked the absolute worst levels of global displacement in all of recorded history. Think about that. We have never been closer to interplanetary habitation, yet more humans than ever before are displaced from their homes, thanks to global conflict, socio-economic strife, and persecution. Those lucky enough to find themselves living in refugee camps will likely spend decades, if not an entire generation, living in those camps.
Mariam Shaar and Myrna Atalla want to help change that.
As the leaders of two different NGOs, Shaar and Atalla are working together in the hopes of empowering the female residents of Lebanon’s Bourj el-Barajneh refugee camp. The camp, located near Beirut, was created in 1948 for the unending stream of Palestinians who were forced to leave their homeland by Israel. Due to the recent crisis in Syria, the camp’s population has skyrocketed with refugees from that war-torn nation, too.
Shaar, who runs the the Women’s Program Association at the refugee camp, first approached Atalla of Alfanar—the first venture philanthropy organization that works exclusively in the Arab world—just a few years ago. She was hoping to help the women at the camp establish a self-sufficient catering business. Two years later, Soufra—which means “dining table” in Arabic—was in full swing, selling meals to the refugees in the camp.
On Saturdays, the women sell their products at Beirut’s famous Souk el Tayeb market; they have even catered several high-profile events. The food venture, run by women at the refugee camp, was clearly a success, but the women wanted to expand their business further. That’s when they came up with the idea of a crowdfunding campaign to buy a food truck. So far, they’ve raised over $55,000 (well above their goal of $46,973).
I spoke to Shaar and Atalla about the Kickstarter campaign and how their project could indeed serve as a roadmap to empower the lives of the countless refugees throughout the Arab world and elsewhere.
MUNCHIES: How do the backgrounds of the Soufra members impact the dishes they choose to cook? How many are of Syrian origin and how many are Palestinian?
Myrna Atalla: Soufra mainly serves typical Palestinian dishes. They [use] recipes that Palestinian women take huge pride in perfecting, passing them on from generation to generation to keep Palestinian national identity and traditions alive. But we have started to sell muhammara, a classic Syrian dip, and we also sell kibbeh, which is a Lebanese dish made of minced meat, bulgur wheat, and seasonings.
Mariam Shaar: Most of our team are Palestinian, but we have two Syrian women in the team now, too.
How has working with the Souk el Tayeb market influenced your venture?
Shaar: Souk el Tayeb has been incredibly helpful—they have done so much to help us become known in the Lebanon food market. They also trained us and helped us significantly with our branding and marketing. We simply would never have got to where we are now without their help. Our models are quite different—rather than having a rotating menu like Souk el Tayeb’s [restaurant Tawlet], as a catering unit we have a set menu. But there’s every chance we’ll get inspiration from professional chefs via Souk el Tayeb as we set our menu and strategy for the food truck.
Mariam, you have said you don’t even cook. How did this idea start, then?
Shaar: I’m single, so I don’t need to spend a lot of time in the kitchen! I spend most of my time working. When I started with the idea of Soufra, I was really nervous—usually when people start something like this, they at least know the basics! But the women of Soufra have really given me confidence. And actually it’s about them, not me—this is something they are good at, so whether or not I can cook isn’t important. Will I cook one day? If I have to, I will! I think what I bring is my focus on detail, so I make sure that there is complete consistency in cooking—for example, I make sure that the amounts of spice women add to their dishes is always exactly the same to ensure consistent quality. The Soufra ladies have come to appreciate this rigor.
As I understand it, Alfanar is a venture philanthropic organization and it invests in grassroots organizations to improve the status of women and children. Does Alfanar work with any other food-related businesses?
Atalla: Soufra isn’t the only food business we have been involved with. We have just started investing in another social enterprise in Lebanon, called Mommy Made, which trains women to work as professional cooks and then secures them steady jobs. And in rural Egypt, we support an organization called Shomoo (meaning “candles” in Arabic) that combats domestic violence. We have helped it improve its financial sustainability by starting its own catering unit. It’s worth saying that we were interested in the idea of Soufra because we were impressed with Mariam’s vision and entrepreneurial spirit, and the huge potential of the model to generate income for WPA’s social purpose activities.
Tell me more about some of the events that Soufra has catered.
Shaar: We have catered for all sorts of organizations, including UN Relief Works Agency, the Swiss Embassy, the American University of Beirut, and the Economic and Social Commission for West and South Asia. A couple of weeks ago we catered for 400 families at an event run by PACES, a charity that provides after-school sports Palestinian girls and boys. The feedback we’ve got has always been really positive. I’m a pretty anxious person so I always get nervous, but everyone keeps telling me to relax, the food is really good!
Is it true that the 2014 movie Chef by Jon Favreau inspired Soufra or did it simply confirm what you had already been thinking about?
Atalla: It’s probably more accurate to say that it confirmed our ideas. When we started working with Mariam and her team, we had initial discussions about what we could do to level out the erratic revenue of a catering enterprise. The Soufra team could see the importance of finding new customers outside the camp, and that areas outside the camp with high foot traffic, like the local hospital, could be useful in driving sales. One of the Alfanar team had seen Chef so we suggested the idea, and built it into Soufra’s business plan. It’s testament to the openness of the Soufra team that they embraced the idea so quickly. Mariam is eager to see the film.
What are the most popular dishes the women serve?
Shaar: We have something called fatayer fellahi, which are little pastries. Ours are flavored with fresh green thyme—they’re delicious! People have tried to copy our recipe but, with respect, they don’t do it as well as us! Another favorite is a traditional Palestinian dish called musakhan—a sumac-flavoured chicken with sautéed onions.
I’ve heard that the average tenure at a refugee camp is around 17 years, or a full generation. Is Soufra a long-term solution to empower, or will it dissolve should the women and their families leave the area?
Atalla: Burj el-Burajneh camp is a permanent refugee camp. All the women who work for Soufra, and most of the women, men, and children living in the camp were born there. What many people don’t know is that even if you have lived all your life in Lebanon, if you are a refugee, you are barred from working in most of the formal labor market. Women in Burj el-Barajneh and all other camps across Lebanon are in desperate need of a source of dignified employment like this.
Shaar: The women of Soufra have been checking the progress of our Kickstarter campaign every day. It will mean so much to them to get the food truck, which will give them even more pride in their work, and visibility within Lebanon.
Can you tell us about how you intend to run the day-to-day operations of the food truck going forward?
Shaar: We’ll be looking at areas outside the camp that have high foot traffic—not just the local hospital but also banks, schools, and shopping areas. We also want to talk to other people who run food trucks and get their tips on how to make it successful.
Do you feel this be a model for other businesses led by women throughout the Arab world?
Atalla: The model is certainly replicable within other refugee camps in Lebanon. Altogether there are nine branches of the Women’s Program Association in Palestinian refugee camps across the country—so why not have a whole fleet of food trucks serving all the camps in Lebanon?! We are also planning to raise funds to buy a food truck for Mommy Made, and we’ll obviously draw on the lessons we learn from both experiences to see what can be applied elsewhere.
Shaar: Refugees like us know that charity isn’t enough. We’re tired of it. You need to empower people to make them self reliant. You don’t need to give people a fish. You need to teach them how to fish. That is what the food truck means to us. So there is great potential for this kind of model to empower refugees elsewhere.
Thanks so much for speaking with me, Myrna and Mariam.