HAMILTON, Ontario – Dalal al-Zoubi works the chopped parsley into a mound of kebab meat, massaging the mixture in a silver bowl. She rolls the meat between her palms, and stabs it with thin, wooden skewers.
Across the table, Manahel al-Shareef chops mint, parsley, tomatoes and cucumbers on a bright green cutting board, and tosses the ingredients into a bowl. The women work methodically, with small bursts of chatter and gentle instructions flying between them in Arabic.
Al-Zoubi and al-Shareef are founding chefs at the Karam Kitchen (Karam means “generous” in Arabic), a small catering business run by Syrian refugees newly arrived in Hamilton, with the help of local organizers.
It’s a Thursday afternoon in the kitchen, and the women are preparing an order for about 20 people: kofta kebabs (ground lamb and beef skewers), falafel, potatoes, salad and hummus.
“We’re blending into Canadian society, with the people, not staying alone,” said al-Zoubi, a former teacher in Syria, describing the impact that getting involved with the kitchen has had on her family. “Working helps us build our confidence.”
It has also helped her improve her English vocabulary. “We learned many new words,” she said, going through the list, laughing: “Eggplant. Parsley. Parsley was new for me … tomato, potato, eggs, milk, zucchini, onion, peanuts, pistachio …”
Al-Zoubi and al-Shareef are both originally from Daraa, in southwestern Syria, and lived as refugees in Jordan after their families fled their home country in 2012 because of the ongoing war. But they met in Canada, where they both arrived in early 2016. Al-Zoubi came with her husband and four children, while al-Shareef was resettled alongside her husband and seven children.
Working in the kitchen gives their families a much-needed financial boost. And al-Zoubi and al-Shareef both stressed how important it was for them to quickly stand on their own two feet.
“We don’t depend on what the government gives us or anyone else. We spend money on ourselves and our children from what we earn from our products,” al-Zoubi said.
More than 40,000 Syrian refugees have been resettled in Canada since November 2015, following an election campaign promise by Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party. The federal government sponsored more than half of these Syrian newcomers. Refugees with government or private sponsors receive monthly financial assistance during their first year in the country.
But for many of them struggling to adapt to life in their new home, anxiety about the so-called “13th month” – when the government or private groups’ financial support dries up – is palpable.
Projects such as Karam Kitchen give Syrian refugees an income and more financial independence. They also serve as a bridge between the newcomers and the communities where they have been resettled. The Hamilton kitchen is not the only business of its kind in Canada: in nearby Toronto, Syrian women at The Newcomer Kitchen cook up weekly meals, while in Vancouver the women of Tayybeh: A Celebration of Syrian Cuisine create pop-up dinners. (Tayybeh is Arabic for “delicious.”)
“I would not have guessed a year ago that this would be happening,” said Brittani Farrington, Karam Kitchen’s administrative director, who cofounded the catering business with the Syrian chefs.
The idea first blossomed when members of Farrington’s church decided to host a welcome dinner for 10 Syrian newcomer families who resettled in Hamilton last April.
“That’s when I asked Dalal, and she said yes, but we will cook Syrian food for the party,” Farrington said. They were joined by al-Shareef and a third founding chef, Rawa’a, who is currently taking time off after having a baby.
The success of that first dinner prompted the women to ask how they could sell their food in Canada. And after an online fundraising campaign that raised more than $17,000 from nearly 250 backers, they catered their first event last August.
At Karam Kitchen, a buffet-style meal costs just under C$16 per person (about $12), for groups of 20 people or more. It comprises several courses, including a choice of mutabbal (smoked eggplant dip) or hummus to start, yalanje (grape leaves stuffed with ground beef and rice), kibbeh (fried bulgur and ground meat) or falafel.
The main dishes include shish burak (meat dumplings in a yogurt sauce), kousa mahshi (zucchini stuffed with meat, rice and spices and cooked in tomato sauce) and kabsa (fried chicken pieces and rice).
The women are now averaging three to four days in the kitchen per week, and they have received orders to cater for City of Hamilton meetings, events at local organizations and private parties for 20 people or more.
“It’s been so exciting,” Farrington said about seeing the women grow more and more comfortable in the kitchen. “I think they’re getting comfortable to the point where they’re making suggestions and innovations.”
Karam Kitchen are currently fundraising to buy a delivery van, which Farrington said would help them take on more contracts and potentially hire other women to join the project. They have also taken on two new chefs, also Syrian refugees.
“I hope we keep growing. I hope we’re able to hire more women and train these women as much as they want. I would love to see this being a jumping-off point for everyone, if they want it to be,” Farrington said.
Al-Zoubi, meanwhile, said that while being so far from Syria remains difficult, “the difference here is that our children are safe” in Canada.
“We have lived a life full of tragedies. We cannot simply forget that life … We can’t forget the war that we have been through,” al-Shareef added. But working, she said, “changes the atmosphere [and] gets you out of the depressing mood that we lived through.”