How Syrian Refugee Moms Are Becoming Food Entrepreneurs in Toronto

At Newcomer Kitchen, a project of Toronto restaurant The Depanneur, refugee women make traditional Syrian food—the kind of food they grew up on, the kind of food they serve their families, the kind of food that can't be found anywhere else.

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Jun 30 2016, 4:00pm

A slender young woman leans her whole body weight onto a rolling pin, flattening out stubborn whole wheat dough until thin and pliable. Two seated women punch out discs of dough and set to work folding tiny ground beef dumplings. These women—and the four others chopping parsley, tomatoes, and onions between stirring sauces on back burners—are all Syrian refugees. The small kitchen/dining room of west end Toronto eatery The Depanneur could readily be mistaken for someone's home. It's an entirely fitting atmosphere: The women aren't here to crank out restaurant dishes; they're here to make traditional Syrian food—the kind of food they grew up on, the kind of food they serve their families, the kind of food that can't be found anywhere else.

The star of today's menu is shish barak, a beef dumpling akin to tortellini or Turkish manti, seasoned inside with onion and a Leventine spice blend known as baharat. They're browned in the oven and finished in a gorgeous-smelling mint and garlic-spiked yogurt sauce.

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Punching out dumpling wrappers for shish barak. All photos by the author.
newcomerkitchen_DSC_0113 Culinary director Roula Ali Ajib tosses a fresh potato salad.

Designing the menu is a collaborative effort. At the helm is Roula Ali Ajib, who left Syria 20 years ago but has made it a personal mission to delve deep into her country's culinary traditions.

"When I used to go [back to Syria] for summer vacation, I kept asking old ladies, seniors, about their traditional food," she tells me while tossing a massive potato salad with fresh tomato and mint.

Ajib volunteered as an interpreter, but when the women found her knowledgeable and not too shy to give orders, they nominated her as their culinary director.

"I don't decide [the menu] myself. We have ladies from all provinces. I'll have a meeting with them, discuss what is the most famous food in your province, in your city, or your village."

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Roula Ali Ajib (right) and the cooks discuss each recipe.

Ajib must draw from the various regional influences within the cuisine and bring the cooks to a consensus. Today this means insisting on adding an egg to the shish barak's yogurt sauce. The elderly cook is at first reluctant, but ultimately caves to Roula, who tells me, "The classic way... it's the best."

This is the fourth meal the women are making for sale here at The Depanneur. It's part of a project called Newcomer Kitchen.

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Potato salad with tomato, mint, parsley, onion, lemon juice, and a generous amount of olive oil.

"When I heard that families were stuck in hotels with no access to kitchens to cook for themselves or their kids, I thought, I've got capacity in my kitchen. Why don't I invite them in to cook some food and take it home?" explains The Depanneur's owner and founder, Len Senater. "It turned out to be a little more complicated than I'd expected to get in touch with the people living in hotels at that time."

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The unassuming front window of The Depanneur in Toronto's west end.
newcomerkitchen_DSC_0117 Classic Syrian comfort food: oven-baked shish barak

After weeks ensnared in bureaucratic red tape, Senater made a breakthrough when he got in touch with Rahaf Alakabni and her husband, Esmaael Abou Fakher. They're a sunny young couple and Syrian refugees themselves. With their backgrounds—Alakabni is fluent in English and Abou Fakher is a professional social worker—they had become trusted organizers and translators within the community living in the hotel. Abou Fakher paints a picture of the women driven a little stir-crazy after more than two months of hotel living with little to do to pass the time. When his wife pitched the idea of heading out on a sort of field trip to cook, the women leapt at the idea.

"They were so missing cooking," says Abou Fakher.

The first invite to the Dep's kitchen was financed out-of-pocket by Senater himself with some help from the nearby supermarket. In less than two months, it's evolved into an enterprise. The women will sell 48 take-out meals (dessert included) at $20 each. After food costs and overhead, they divide the profits evenly. It works out to roughly $15 an hour. It's not exactly raking in the big bucks, but for newcomers with no local work experience and limited English, earning more per hour than many restaurant cooks isn't a bad deal.

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The vegetarian option: slow stewed green beans in fresh tomato sauce spiked with whole cloves of garlic.
newcomerkitchen_DSC_0158 Esmaael Abou Fakher and Rahaf Alakabni assist the cooks in portioning the vegetarian option.

"What's exciting is that it hints that there's a different way to organize the food business." says Senater. "The idea is much bigger than what we can just do alone at the Depanneur."

Senater has launched a Fundrazr campaign to crowdfund the Newcomer Kitchen as a standalone entity, a permanent piece of infrastructure that could serve to connect any group of newcomers with any kitchen willing to open its doors. In its first day it already earned 8 percent of its $25,000 goal.

"This is not a charitable endeavour. This is creating a platform where we can have an exchange of mutual benefit that's dignified and equitable."

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Ali Ajib cracks open orange blossom simple syrup for namoura, a semolina cake popular throughout the Levant.

The scent of mint and garlic wafts through the kitchen as Ajib and the cooks portion out the shish barak. It's obvious they've fulfilled the order with ample leftovers to take home for tonight's iftar feasts with their families.

"We feel like we are a family here. You know that we used to always visit our relatives and friends, especially during Ramadan," says Alakabni. "It's very important as Assyrians to connect, to meet again."