A Taste of Home

Newcomer Kitchen gives Syrian refugee women an opportunity to share their food culture with Canada.

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Between sips of tea in glasses, some enhanced by fresh mint leaves, roughly a dozen Syrian refugee women prepare malfouf: cabbage rolls stuffed with halal ground beef, rice, spices and a few dashes of pomegranate molasses. These refugees, many of whom have been in Canada only a few months, spend the day cooking together in a Toronto storefront for 50 people who have preordered their meals. Between stirring steaming pots and searching for tender cabbage leaves, they show each other photos of family members on their smartphones, tell stories and debate the best way to make their dishes. It all takes place at the Newcomer Kitchen, a weekly event where up to a dozen Syrian women gather together to cook meals from home.

Len Senater heard that many Syrian refugees who came to Canada were living in hotels and had no kitchens to make their own food. He did have a kitchen and wanted to provide a space where Syrian refugee women could cook.

Last spring, Len Senater, owner of the Depanneur, a space that hosts pop-up food events in Toronto’s West End, heard that many Syrian refugees who came to Canada were living in hotels and had no kitchens to make their own food. He did have a kitchen and wanted to provide a space where Syrian refugee women could cook. Although he didn’t speak Arabic or have any connections with the community, he did have a group of volunteers who wanted to help. One of them connected him with Rahaf Alakbani, 25, and her husband Esmaeel Abofakher, 29, who had come to Canada as refugees from Syria in February. The couple then found a group of women who wanted to cook, and brought them to the Depanneur.

“There was a language barrier and a culture barrier,” says Senater, “but Cara [Benjamin-Pace, the Newcomer Kitchen’s executive director] and I bought a bunch of random ingredients, and when the women arrived, we said: ‘Why don’t you just cook something?’ They were like, ‘Really? You want us to do the cooking?’” After he answered “yes,” they took over the kitchen.

Since then, the women have moved into their own homes with kitchens of their own, but they still come to make meals. However, rather than make food for themselves, they’re now cooking for customers and getting paid between $80 and $100 a day for their work. But while the pay is important, even more significantly, these women can get together in a social setting and contribute to Canadian culture in a meaningful way, he says. Alakbani, who is now a program coordinator at the Newcomer Kitchen, agrees. “This united us as Syrians,” she says. “I call this kitchen a Little Syria.”

 

With communities across Canada also taking in numerous Syrian refugees, Senater thinks that what he’s doing can be replicated in other cities, and he wants to develop a playbook for others to create Newcomer Kitchens of their own. He also wants to seek federal non-profit status – they currently have provincial non-profit status – and eventually become a registered charity, which will give them access to funding.

Until that happens, he’ll keep providing space in Toronto for Syrians to cook. Others can help new arrivals to Canada, too, if not through cooking then through something else. “You don’t have to do a gigantic gesture,” he says. “Just move yourself one step closer, but keep moving and everyone will find what is in them to bring to this.”