In a market as diverse as Lisbon’s Mercado de Arroios, where people from all over the world shop, Mezze doesn’t seem out of the ordinary. But the small restaurant deserves a closer look: it’s not only one of Lisbon’s few Middle Eastern restaurants, but, more importantly, its staff is almost entirely made up of recently arrived Syrian refugees. For them Mezze represents both a link back to the country they left behind and a crucial aid for putting down roots in their new home.
The idea behind Mezze is one that’s being tried out in other countries. Refugees, particularly those fleeing the war in Syria, are given the chance to earn a living and get established by sharing their culinary heritage, either by opening or working at a restaurant or catering business. The benefit is not just for the refugees, who are able to earn some money while at the same time preserving a taste of home, but also for their new communities, who can support those displaced by war and gain insight into their cultural heritage through the universal language of food.
Mezze’s start, though, was motivated by something simpler – the desire for bread. Alaa Alhariri, a 24-year-old Syrian woman who came to Portugal to study architecture in 2014 after a brief time spent studying in Egypt and Istanbul, was missing the flatbread she used to buy back home. “Bread is the beginning of everything, it exists in every culture,” she says. “In the Middle East it means family, it means sharing. Syrians open bakeries as soon as they arrive in Turkey and in other countries as well.”
Alaa is one of the four founders of the non-profit Pão a Pão, which means “Bread by Bread,” a name inspired by the Portuguese saying “Grão a Grão” (“Grain by Grain,” which has a similar meaning to “step by step”). The organization was the brainchild of Alaa and Francisca Gorjão Henriques, another cofounder and Pão a Pão’s current president. Francisca and Alaa met by chance – Alaa was living with Francisca’s aunt. Pão a Pão was originally created with the intention of opening a bakery.
“Refugees [from Syria] started to arrive in Portugal in 2015 under the European Union program to relocate them,” explains Alaa, whose eyes shine with enthusiasm when talking about the project (while she’s heavily involved in behind-the-scenes work, she doesn’t work at the restaurant). “They only receive state assistance for two years, after which the funds stop.” The aim of Pão a Pão is to help young people and women, in particular, integrate into the work force. “Some of these women have never worked before,” says Alaa. “They’ve been housewives all their lives.”
But the team at Pão a Pão began to think bigger; the bakery plan was scrapped and their new aim was to open a restaurant. They organized a series of successful test dinners in December 2016, which took place in an old covered market that had been converted into an events space. Buoyed by the positive response, Pão a Pão felt confident in taking the plunge. They were able to crowdfund just over 23,000 euros (around $30,000) – almost 10,000 euros more than the initial goal – over the course of 2017, with the restaurant finally opening its doors in September, serving such classic Syrian dishes as moussaka, kibbeh (fried balls made of bulgur, minced meat and walnuts), kabseh (rice with vegetables and chicken) and baba ganoush.
“The people working here feel like they’re doing something useful. So the more people we can help feel this way, the better.”
“People’s reactions have been amazing, it is better than we could expect, we’re always busy,” says Francisca, who recently left her job as a journalist at the Público newspaper to concentrate on her work with the organization. “We have improved a lot since our first test dinners, especially considering that 90 percent of the team had no prior experience.”
Mezze has also been extremely well received by the Mercado de Arroios’s neighboring shops and stalls, which supply the restaurant with its ingredients. Everything Mezze cooks with comes from the market except the meat, which is sourced from a halal butcher in Almada, south of Lisbon.
Perhaps more significantly, the refugees employed by Mezze take pride in their work. Serena, a 24-year-old from Palestine who has been living in Lisbon for one year now, loves the atmosphere at the restaurant. But, more importantly for her, she values the chance to show that refugees are the same as everyone else: “We work hard, we love life and want to be part of society as much as anyone.”
While we talk, she welcomes people to the restaurant and explains the menu. “The Portuguese ask a lot of questions because they don’t know these dishes but everyone loves the food,” she says. Although she finds the language difficult, she considers Portugal to be her home now. “It’s my home, where I find myself,” she explains. “It still has traditional a family structure, family bonds, and at the same time, more freedom of movement and speech.”
Rafat Dabah, 21 years old, has been in Portugal for just under two years, after being relocated with his family from Egypt, where they first moved after leaving Syria. “My father had a restaurant in Syria and in the school holidays I would work there with him,” he tells us. “Here in Portugal I worked in a kebab place in a shopping center.” This experience seems to have served him well. He began working as a waiter at Mezze, but is now the restaurant’s manager – he eagerly explains the improvements they have made at the restaurant and the positive feedback they’ve received from diners.
Originally from Damascus, he lives in Lisbon with his younger brother and his mother, who also works at Mezze. His older brother, 24, lives in Turkey. His father died in the war. Living in Loures, a suburb north of Lisbon, Rafat can’t image going back home to Damascus anytime soon. “It’s tough there. Sadly things are still dangerous.”
As for life in Portugal, he doesn’t feel quite at home yet, although it’s getting better. He tells us how he’s enjoying learning so much, including the Portuguese language. “To integrate you need to learn the language, I’ve learned a lot and I’m practicing more now,” he says. “Once I could communicate, life became much easier.”
This isn’t the first time refugees have made Portugal their home. Because of its neutrality during the Second World War, the country saw a large influx of exiles from other European countries as well as North Africa. Likewise, hundreds of thousands fled to Lisbon after the independence of Angola and Mozambique in 1975. More recently, 1,659 refugees took shelter in the country as a result of the Balkan wars in the early 1990s.
In the last two years, 1,507 refugees (mostly Syrians but also some from Iraq and Eritrea) were relocated to Portugal from Greece and Italy, according to the Portuguese Council for Refugees. The Portuguese Government announced recently that they would receive 1,000 more currently residing in Turkey (again, mostly Syrians but also some from other Middle Eastern countries). Although small in number compared to the massive number of refugees being sheltered in the countries bordering Syria, they are being welcomed warmly. The extraordinary success of Mezze speaks to that.
The support of the Portuguese people has been fundamental to the realization of this project, which leads us to wonder if this openness would have been possible, say, even 20 years ago. “Maybe 20 years ago, without social media amplifying this disaster at the gates of Europe, this wouldn’t be possible,” admits Francisca. “At the same time, today’s Lisbon is much more cosmopolitan than it was 20 years ago. Diversity is now a prime feature in some parts of the city, like in the Arroios neighborhood.”
The ongoing support of Lisboetas, many of whom felt a wave of solidarity with the refugees after Europe initially bungled the refugee crisis, has inspired Alaa and her colleagues to think bigger. “We’re thinking of opening another location. The Portuguese love to eat and we’re lucky that they love our food,” says Alaa.
Francisca confirms the plans to open another place. “We’ve developed this project with the hope of replicating it in Lisbon and other cities in the country. We’re still starting out and we want to improve, but we think we might be able to open in other locations in a year. We also hope to expand our current Mezze to include a take-away and catering service.” They also have plans for debates and workshops, with Pão a Pão hosting a conference on integration at Mezze on Friday, January 26.
According to Alaa, the people working at the restaurant “feel happy, they feel like they’re doing something useful. So the more people we can help feel this way, the better.”