What It's Like to Cook in a Syrian Refugee Camp

In the Kahramanmaras camp in Turkey, Syrian refugees are able to recreate a small piece of home through their cooking, thanks to an innovative voucher and supermarket system by the World Food Programme.

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Apr 29 2015, 7:30am

"In my dreams, we are still living in our house and village," says Refika, a 50-year-old Syrian woman living in a refugee camp in Kahramanmaras, Turkey. "We had everything back home. My mom was old and she died when I was here—I couldn't see her. My sisters, brothers, and my dad are still there. I cry every day for them."

A mother of three, Refika escaped her village of Lazkiye three years ago as the civil war in Syria escalated to a violently untenable level. "We fled to other villages to find safety, but then eventually we had to come to Turkey. My husband took my youngest son and myself to the border and stayed behind with our two other sons," she says. "We walked for hours. My dress was covered with dust, and my slippers were torn apart. I couldn't stop crying while we were walking."

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Nesrin prepares her tebbuli. Photos courtesy of the WFP.

In the Kahramanmaras camp, however, Refika has found some semblance of peace, even if it is nothing like her life before the war. "Thank God, I am with my family in a safe place. Even if nobody gives me anything to help I am still thankful because they let us in. We are now far from the bombs."

While it may be safe, a tent alone doesn't make a home. That is why the World Food Programme—the United Nations' food assistance wing, which oversees the food operations in the camphas introduced a program that has replaced ration boxes with cash and electronic vouchers that allow refugees to shop for and buy whatever they want. More recently, the WFP debuted a recipe collection called VoucherChef that showcases the recipes these refugees cherish and have carried with them out of the war.

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wfp_maklubeIMG_7087 Refika peels eggplants for the maklube.

"We started this project to communicate how the e-food card programme helps to restore dignity to refugees' lives," says Berna Cetin, the communications officer for WFP Turkey and the head of the VoucherChef project. "Rather than receiving food assistance through hot meals or food rations, they have the means to choose their food purchases and cook their meals."

With the e-food cards—which operate in a similar way to EBT cards in the US—refugees can visit supermarkets built within the camps to buy ingredients for their meals. "In the beginning, they brought us food but we couldn't eat it—it didn't taste like our food," says Nesrin, a 20-year-old refugee who also fled Lazkiye. "Thankfully, after a while the supermarkets were built and we were given e-food cards, and now everybody is cooking in their tent whatever we feel like."

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Cetin notes that shopping in supermarkets offers more than just choice; it's also a social activity. "Women go to market [and] purchase necessary items. In the afternoon, women get together and help each other with cooking the dinner," she says. "It has a good impact on the local economy too, since the supermarkets are owned and run by local people."

Of course, there are bound to be some limitations in a refugee camp. "We get allowance for three people. We try to use it wisely," Refika says. "I go to [the] supermarket every day to buy necessary items. The fridge is too small; I don't want to waste food if I cannot keep it. They have everything in the supermarkets here, but I think the vegetables and fruits in Syria taste better."

"I go shopping every day and buy the items for that day's meal," Nesrin says. "They have everything in the markets, but the prices are more expensive than Syria. Our allowances are not enough sometimes."

Cetin admits that some refugees have difficulty adjusting when they are used to cheaper ingredients back home. "The biggest challenge for them is the price of food products. Because Syria used to be a great country [for] agriculture, the food was very cheap. So the prices in Turkey feels expensive to them." But as Cetin notes, food prices in Syria have skyrocketed since the outbreak of the war, while some areas of the country—including besieged and blockaded cities—have been hit by massive food shortages.

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Feeding nearly two million refugees with vouchers takes a financial toll on the WFP as well. The organization announced in December that due to budgetary shortfalls, it would suspend food assistance for Syrian refugees. Thanks to a successful social media campaign, however, the WFP was able to continue its operations—for now.

But that's exactly why VoucherChef and programs like it are critical in raising awareness about food insecurity among refugee populations. VoucherChef doesn't just serve as good PR for the work that the WFP is doing to aid refugees. The original idea was to write a cookbook showcasing recipes found in the camps in Turkey, Cetin says, but she and her colleagues soon realized that there were many more stories that needed to be told from around the world.

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Um Sayid, a Syrian mother of four, contributed the story of her journey to the Zaatari camp in Jordan along with her recipe for fried kubbeh. Najla, originally from Idleb in Syria, gave her recipe for kabsa, a kind of biryani, from her temporary home at the Boynuyogun camp in Turkey.

"[My job] is more than providing food assistance," says Cetin. "It gives them comfort, a degree of normalcy, a sense of community. I think it gives them hope and helps them cope because they feel like somebody is thinking about them."

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Back at Kahramanmaras, Refika and Nesrin focus on their own dishes as Cetin follows them throughout the process. "We go together … to the supermarket in camp, buy the necessary items for meal, and come back to tent to prepare the food," Cetin says. She takes photos of each step of the cooking process, and gleans some of their stories in the process. "They don't only share a recipe; they share their memories with the recipe. They remember the last time they cooked, or where they usually shop back in Syria. Women usually learn how to cook from their mothers; most of their elderly family members are still in Syria, so they share their fear and concern for their relatives who still live [there]."

Refika's recipe for maklube—a rice-based dish whose name means "upside down" in Arabic—is imbued with such memories. "We cook it a lot during Ramadan," she says. "My mom used to work at a tobacco factory when I was little. So after school I would go to the neighbours and help them with cooking. I have 5 brothers and sisters, [so] I would cook for them [too]."

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By contrast, Nesrin's tebbuli is more of a staple dish. "I learned from my mom, but every woman knows this recipe in Syria," she says. "It is like a snack, side dish, or salad. Everyone makes it the same way."

Without the supermarkets and the e-food cards, however, tebbuli and maklube might not be possible. (At the Bab Al-Salam camp, which is operated by the IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation on the border of Syria and Turkey, refugees are treated to meals of boiled meat and milk.) "Thanks to God, we are alive and keep on living," Refika says. "I don't care if we are living under a tent—anything is better than living under bombs."

"When I listen to their stories on how they escaped war, how they are thankful with the very little they have, and try to keep their hope to go back, this always make me feel sad—but I admire their strength after all they've been through," Cetin says.

Indeed, that hope is hard to kill. "My husband and I used to dream about our house when we were engaged, but we never had a house," says Nesrin. "I got married here and they gave us a separate tent. When I go back, I will sell whatever I have and we'll rebuild our house again with my husband, because I want my son and my new baby to live there."

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