Every kitchen lives by its ebb and flow. There’s the gentle simmer of rote prep and small talk; the mad tango of searing sautés and the electric energy on the assembly line. Stray bits of sumac and fennel. Shouting matches and saucy spoons.
But at Newcomer Kitchen in Toronto – a weekly pop-up that invites Syrian refugee women to gather, cook traditional meals and split the day’s proceeds – something else is at play. It’s here that the women build a community of their own, buoyed by the relaxed chatter and culinary craftsmanship so resonant of home. Some women seat themselves around the table, hollowing out white vegetable marrows; others attend to the semolina and ghee cakes baking in the oven. There’s a simple and intuitive elegance befitting this place, and it’s as effervescent as it is familiar.
To the tune of oud melodies unraveling like audible lemon zest on the speakers overhead, Rahaf Alakbani beelines from one workstation to another – delegating tasks with unrivaled enthusiasm, conversing and joking with the women, and sampling a forkful of simmering el r’gaga (poached chicken and caramelized onions baked in layers of rolled dough). It’s a rhythm she’s long been familiar with – Rahaf and her husband, Esmaeel Abofakher, are the project coordinators who helped spearhead Newcomer Kitchen from the start.
“It is so hard, especially for the newcomers in general, when they come here and feel alone and depressed,” Rahaf says.
“They left behind their families. It’s a sensitive thing back home because of this war. And this little kitchen really united us – gathered us from all these cities, altogether, to build a community again in Syria, in another community over here.”
A lot has changed since Newcomer Kitchen first came to fruition in February 2016: cooking classes and corporate team-building workshops are increasingly popular, and the roster of participants has since grown to include over 75 Syrian families. But the Depanneur – an experiential kitchen and event space that Newcomer Kitchen has called home for the last two and a half years – has always been its bedrock.
It’s all part and parcel of what Esmaeel calls the “holy moment,” in which people don’t just eat. They gather.
The program began when founders Len Senater and Cara Benjamin-Pace wanted to provide a kitchen space for newly arrived Syrian women, many of whom had been living in hotels for months without access to adequate meals or a proper kitchen. They teamed up with Rahaf and Esmaeel, who were newcomers themselves at the time. “For a lot of women who came that first day, that was their very first time ever leaving their hotels, ever going downtown, ever going on the subway,” recalls Len.
“It was a really courageous thing to do. It speaks to the draw of the kitchen – the importance of that to them and to who they are.”
There’s no question that the program occupies an important place in the lives of the women, who spend their time at Newcomer Kitchen building a parallel world out of scoops of labneh and 35 varieties of kibbeh. They’re able to access a tangible part of themselves through the deeply transformative power of food – a medium where individual and collective identities are expressed and understood. It’s all part and parcel of what Esmaeel calls the “holy moment,” in which people don’t just eat. They gather.
But as Len Senater explains, it’s not only about the communion and inherent symbolism of nourishment that cooking brings for these women. “This notion of Syrian refugees is not a single monolithic thing,” he says. “This umbrella represents an incredibly heterogeneous mix of Druzes and Christians and Kurds and every possible stripe of Islam. University-educated urbanites and illiterate peasant farmers. They’re all here – people who would never otherwise be together sharing a meal are now suddenly becoming unlikely friends. I think that peacemaking and that reconciliation is incredibly powerful. And that’s also taken home with them and brought into the community.”
Two and a half years down the road, the women now have an opportunity to pay it forward (or backwards, as it were).
Newcomer Kitchen has partnered with the humanitarian aid organization Global Medic to design a meal kit for the millions of displaced Syrians living in refugee camps throughout the region – part of an overarching initiative called the emergency food program, which aims to deliver affordable, nutritious and culturally appropriate meals to war-torn and disaster-afflicted regions throughout the world.
“It’s hard to explain how this is the perfect piece of Newcomer Kitchen – that makes it whole, that makes it real,” says Cara. “There’s a little bit of what one might call survivor’s guilt that I really see among the women. They made it out. They managed to land in an abundant place. And in a way, they feel guilty enjoying it too much, because it’s not just about here. It’s about there, too.”
There, mujaddara is the quintessential staple – a medieval Arab dish consisting of cooked lentils, rice and caramelized onions. Though it’s often considered to be a dish for the frugal, mujaddara proves to be anything but; the Middle Eastern comfort food carries a remarkable depth of intermingling flavors and textures.
It’s also ideal for the emergency food program, both in practical ways and symbolic ones. The rice in mujaddara will be replaced with longer-acting bulgur; the dehydrated fried onion, once cooked, will add some of the oil and flavour back into the dish. But the true impact of this initiative is lost on no one. “At the end of that little session, the women that I know were starting to break down and cry,” Cara recalls. “They were saying thank you so much. Because we know how badly this food is needed back home. We’ve been those people.”
While a number of exciting projects continue to unfold at Newcomer Kitchen, Len hopes to eventually create a reproducible playbook that can then spread to other kitchens around the world. The widespread media fervor and overwhelmingly positive impact so far suggests that he won’t have to wait long.
Until then, Wednesdays at Newcomer Kitchen are as the women have come to expect: a place imbued with flowing conversations, delightful aromas hinting at parsley and pomegranate, and the expressive language we call cooking – the latter of which Rahaf refers to as “the breath.”
“Sometimes people ask me, how did you make this? And I’m really accurate and generous to tell them the details. The quantities and everything,” she says, laughing.
“And they made it at home. They said no, no, no – it’s not like yours. People back home in Syria, they believe in this: you have a special taste and you have a special breath, even if it’s the same way and the same recipe that you make. Because food is culture and art. Each lady is really talented and has her own way how to cook. Each lady has her own story.”
For more information about Newcomer Kitchen, visit their website.