For Marina Liaki, Greece had long been a holiday destination, a place to visit family, soak in the sun and practice her Greek. So it was a shock when Marina, who is half-French, half-Greek and grew up in Paris, volunteered at a temporary refugee camp in the port of Piraeus in late 2015. The Syrian war was at its peak, and large numbers of refugees where coming over by sea every day. “It was so strange seeing the port of Athens, which I had always connected to careless summer holidays, in such a state,” she recalls.
It was there, in January 2016, that Marina met Hasan Hmeidan, another volunteer who was originally from Syria but had moved to Greece with his family when he was five years old. Both Arabic speakers, they were able to communicate directly with the incoming refugees, unlike many of the NGOs and other volunteers at the camp. With the support of family and friends, the two quickly joined professional forces to create Za’atar, a small Athens-based NGO that supports refugees. (They also forged a more personal connection – Marina and Hasan became a couple.)
More recently, the project – named after the savory herb blend popular throughout the Levant – has expanded to include Γευσεις της Δαμασκού (“Tastes of Damascus”), a falafel shop in Kypseli, central Athens. Opening its doors in February 2020, the small restaurant allows the NGO to train and employ refugees, many of whom use the job as a stepping-stone to other restaurant work.
Marina and Hasan took very different paths to that refugee camp, yet each developed skills that have proven elemental to the success of Za’atar. As a child in Paris, Marina, who is now in her 30s, saw the many inequalities and difficulties faced by people who came to France from all over the world – especially those from former French colonies. They struggled with linguistic and cultural barriers, religious differences, their educational status and so on. Witnessing these disparities informed her education and career path: She studied law and communications as an undergraduate and master’s student, learned to speak Spanish and Arabic, and later worked for the United Nations and France Média Monde as an Arabic specialist.
The small restaurant allows the NGO to train and employ refugees, many of whom use the job as a stepping-stone to other restaurant work.
Hasan has first-hand experience of the difficulties facing migrants. He moved with his family from Idlib in Syria to Greece in the early 90s, first living on the island of Crete and then moving a few years later to Athens, where they have been ever since. His family has close ties with the food and restaurant industry. His brother Neshouan went to culinary school in Athens, and the family owned two falafel shops, one on Acharnon Street close to central Athens and one in Palio Faliro, a southern suburb.
The migrant influx of the mid-2010s came at a particularly difficult time for Greece – the country was in the midst of political change, instability and the biggest economic crisis it had seen in years (which contributed to the closing of both of the Hmeidan family’s falafel shops). Marina saw that organizing and supporting such a large group of migrants posed a serious challenge, while Hasan understood the barriers facing these refugees – even though he feels Greek, it took him several years and lots of bureaucracy to get Greek citizenship.
Za’taar is built on the idea that people from different backgrounds and cultures can equally inspire and enrich one another, just like the various herbs that complement each other in the spice blend of the same name. The Orange House, the organization’s base in the Exarchia neighborhood, offers shelter to refugee women and children and also serves as a day center. Migrants – both men and women – come for various classes, including Greek lessons and courses in sewing, hairdressing and cooking. Their aim is twofold: to give these refugees the skills required to build a life in Greece and to help them adapt to Greek culture.
“It really isn’t a kindness to treat refugees like they are always in need,” Marina tells us. “Yes, they need our help and support but they must also realize that they can be out there on their own, start building a normal life and becoming independent. Our mission is to help them do that and support their rights.”
The cooking classes, many of them led by Dureyda, Hasan’s mother, who previously worked as a chef, are particularly popular. (With first-hand knowledge of what it’s like to be a refugee in Greece, she is skilled at helping them adapt to the new culture they live in.) Prior to the pandemic, they offered eight-week courses to small groups.
Building on the success of their cooking classes, the organization opened a small falafel shop – Tastes of Damascus – in February of last year, with the aim of providing direct employment to refugees. Dureyda and her son Neshouan are mostly in charge of the project (Marina and Hasan step in to help when necessary, but mainly focus on running Za’taar). Located on Fokionos Negri, a large pedestrian street lined with cafés, bars and restaurants, it has about a dozen outdoor tables but also offers takeout and delivery. “We opened and about two weeks later we had the first lockdown here in Athens. It was really tough,” Marina recalls, although the shop was lucky enough to be serving delivery- and takeout-friendly foods.
Today they are a known entity in the neighborhood and very busy now that outdoor seating is allowed again. The menu is short and simple, and mostly vegan, apart from a couple of vegetarian dishes that include yogurt. It includes classic dishes like falafel wrapped in pita bread or served on a meze platter along classic dips like moutabal (eggplant dip with tahini and yogurt), hummus and muhammara (red pepper dip). There are also two salads on offer: tabbouleh (chopped salad with bulgur, tomato, parsley and onion) and fattoush (mixed chopped tomatoes, cucumber, peppers, spring onion and fried pita bread).
The menu is rounded out with two desserts, a Damascus-style kantaifi (a baklava-style syrupy dessert with pistachios) and a mouhalabieh (a milk pudding with coconut, pistachios and rose and orange blossom water). They make their own ayrani (a Middle Eastern yogurt drink) and lemonade with mint, and in the near feature their plan is to make their own beer as well.
Hasan and Marina recently had a baby girl, meaning that they spend less time at the restaurant and are more focused on the organization. But Tastes of Damascus is in good hands – and, more importantly, is doing a bit of good for those in the kitchen.