When 35-year-old Wareef Kaseem Hamdeo fled from Aleppo in 2012, as the Syrian government rained bombs down on the city, he didn’t imagine that he’d be leaving one war zone to land in another – the besieged Gaza Strip.
After searching for work in Turkey and Egypt, he ended up in the unlikely destination of Gaza, where he endured yet another war for 51 days last summer when Israel and armed Palestinian groups battled until a lasting cease-fire was reached in late August.
Yet, he found local fame and love, eventually getting married and making a new life for himself in the Strip.
Syria Deeply sat down with Hamdeo at his restaurant in Gaza and spoke to him about his experience and the conditions endured by the 24 other Syrian families in Gaza.
Syria Deeply: Why did you decide to leave Syria and what was your initial plan?
Wareef Kaseem Hamdeo: I left Aleppo in 2012, when the bombing intensified and after I lost my home and restaurant in Aleppo. My family had already fled to Turkey six months earlier. Then I had to walk seven kilometers till I arrived at a safe area where there was no bombing. That was in the northern countryside of Aleppo, in the Azaz area.
When I was in Azaz there was heavy bombing. After being there for a week, I got my passport and my personal documents, then I entered Bab al-Salamah [one of Syria’s border crossings], crossing into Calis, Turkey, where I stayed for a while. I tried to search for a job there, but back in 2012 the situation wasn’t encouraging for Syrians, and most were staying in refugee camps and receiving aid, food and shelter from relief organizations and the Turkish government. I had two choices – to go to Istanbul or to go to Egypt. I decided to go to Egypt.
Syria Deeply: How was the situation in Egypt when you arrived there?
Wareef Kaseem Hamdeo: A friend and my cousin both encouraged me to go to Egypt, and told me that as a Syrian chef I could find a job there. I also have a mechanical engineering diploma, by the way. That’s when I decided to travel to Egypt.
I traveled from Bursa seaport and crossed the sea to Bur Said port. The voyage took 44 hours in the sea – it was painful and joyful at the same time. I entered Egypt and it was a totally new place for me. It’s a lot different. I arrived in Cairo and I worked in the food industry but I didn’t make a monthly salary because the situation in Egypt was hard, too. Many Syrians were already in Egypt and some of them had opened restaurants. I worked in restaurants, decorating hotels and for other companies [on a freelance basis]. I made a business card and worked on arranging open buffets.
However, after two months I ran into a Syrian man who used to come to my restaurant in Aleppo and he told me that he was planning to open a new restaurant on October 6, and he asked me to be the chef of his restaurant. At first, I felt encouraged to stay in Egypt and I had a job, a home and a salary. During this period, though, I met a Palestinian man who told me that his friend was opening a new restaurant in Gaza and he wanted me to come to work with him there. I told him, “Are you crazy. I ran away from war in Syria to go to war in Gaza? And I said no way.”
Syria Deeply: How did you come to Gaza and what was the reason behind it?
Wareef Kaseem Hamdeo: That Palestinian man started to show me his new restaurant’s photos and told me Gaza is beautiful and showed me photos of every place including the sea. I refused and insisted I wouldn’t go. Then another chance came for me to travel to Poland to work there in a Syrian restaurant; everything was ready and a friend of mine booked a ticket and sent me a visa invitation.
The day I went to the airport, I was surprised to find that the man from Gaza who wanted me to work with him came there to stop me. He said, “Please Wareef, think about it. I want you to come to Gaza and everything is ready for you – just come.” I agreed, but only with conditions. I told him to pay me $2,500 per month, and, to my surprise, he agreed. When he agreed on the price I felt afraid as to where I was going. He told me, give yourself a chance, just come for 10 days to see Gaza and decide. I felt confused at that moment.
I came to Gaza with the Palestinian friend through a tunnel. It was an adventure. After we got through the tunnel and came to the beach road near Rafah city, the view took my heart and reminded me of Syria. The air was clean and it wasn’t nearly as crowded as in Egypt. I felt comfortable again. The next day he took me to his place, Izmir Restaurant. He showed me the place and where he wanted me to work. During my first 10 days in Gaza, I visited the whole Strip. The last day I told him I’m going to work with you and come back to stay in Gaza, but $2,500 is too much as a salary in Gaza. And I came back to Egypt to finish all the things I have there and bought cooking equipment and came back to start working in Gaza.
Syria Deeply: How did people react to a Syrian chef coming to work in Gaza?
Wareef Kaseem Hamdeo: I’m full Syrian not half-Palestinian and people were shocked that I came here. I started to serve typical Syrian dishes in the restaurant and people loved that and more started to come to taste the famous Syrian food. Also Syrian drama on TV has affected the demand for Syrian dishes like kibbeh – like in Bab al-Hara, the Syrian drama series [a popular Ramadan TV show].
Syria Deeply: After enduring war in your homeland and in Gaza, how do you feel about your decision?
Wareef Kaseem Hamdeo: After living in Gaza for five months, I started to feel that it’s getting more closed and hard to get out. Back in Syria before the war, I used to travel to Turkey or Beirut whenever I wanted to – even for a day and come back. My dream now is to take a car and travel freely. After seven months I felt very stressed and I wanted to leave everything, but I didn’t do that because of work.
Then, one day, a woman came to interview me who works with France 24 media. Eventually we fell in love and got engaged and married. Then when the Israeli war came last summer, the Izmir Restaurant had to close down for 51 days. So, I had no job for the time. My wife is the only reporter for France 24 and I had to support her and to let her do her job. I worked and helped her during the 51 days of war. It’s our duty to help show the truth – the killing and destruction around us.
After the war ended, Gaza was dead. One of my clients suggested that I open a new restaurant with him, but it was very hard because there weren’t many building supplies. We had to wait for four months.
I witnessed the war in Syria and ran away from death only to find it again in Gaza. But I stayed because at least the war ended – if I had stayed in Syria, I’d still be living through war.
Syria Deeply: Tell us about your new place, the Syriana Restaurant.
Wareef Kaseem Hamdeo: Syria is our mother and I named the restaurant Syriana [Arabic for “Our Syria”] because of that. It’s a takeaway restaurant with Syrian shawarma and sandwiches and other dishes. It’s experimental till we can open a restaurant where people can sit and dine in.
The biggest problem was getting the construction materials – we paid double the normal prices [because of the Israeli siege on Gaza].
Syria Deeply: You’re not the only Syrian in Gaza. Can you explain how the situation is for Syrians here?
Wareef Kaseem Hamdeo: There are 24 Syrian families in Gaza who are suffering from the situation. Like the Palestinians here, they can’t leave Gaza or find jobs. They received help, but you can’t blame anyone here because all people in Gaza are tired of the situation. I sometimes feel quite bad that my Syrian passport has expired and I can’t renew it as [is the case for]other Syrian families here.
We contacted the European Union and UNHCR in Cairo and Jordan and there was no response. We want to at least be able to renew our passports or to get Palestinian passports so we can travel.
That actually happened with my friend. He went to Egypt and there they told him in the airport that because he’s Syrian they’d have to contact Damascus. He didn’t want to go back to Syria, so he just came back to Gaza again.
We recently made an association for Syrians in Gaza. I’m the head of the association – I talk on media about our situation. I speak out about our struggle and explain how we need to be able to leave Gaza in order to see our families in Turkey and other countries. Here you have UNRWA, the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, but there isn’t an organization for Syrians in Gaza. There isn’t even an office for the U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees [because Palestinians have their own refugee agency]. Now we’re living merely on hope.
Photos by Lara Abu Ramadan.