Entrepreneurial refugees enrich Vancouver’s dining scene

posted on June 11, 2018

By Denise Ryan, Vancouver Sun |

At a long table in a West End Vancouver home, three Syrian women are dining Canadian style: A man is cooking for them.

Hasne Omer, Ragdha Hasan and Maha Alambarabar, Syrian refugees and cooks for the hottest meal ticket in town, Tayybeh, don’t often have someone else doting on them, but tonight is different. For the occasion, they have donned their best hijabs, a colourful array of peach, gold and white.

Their host, Lev Richards, a fellow Syrian and recent arrival to Canada, has also started a food business, Pistachio Catering, serving Syrian specialties through catered dinners in private homes. Cooking for the matriarchs of Tayybeh is high-stakes: He’s been prepping for days.

“Do you think we should go help him in the kitchen?” someone jokes in Arabic. The women erupt in laugher.

“This is an occasion,” explains Nihal Elwan, founder of Tayybeh: A Celebration of Syrian Cuisine, which hosts pop-up dinners and Syrian catering events. “They are not used to being guests.”

Richards and his guests are among a growing number of Syrian refugees in the Lower Mainland who have found a niche cooking for others with the flavours of the country and culture they left behind.

Since 2015, B.C. has welcomed 4,400 Syrian refugees. Many among them are finding that food and food businesses are a pathway to work, and settlement, when other doors are closed.

Food is inextricably bound up in cultural identity, and offers a gateway for understanding, acceptance and interaction — food is a language that can be exchanged and understood without words. It is also deeply personal.

Tayybeh began in October 2016 when Elwan used a $500 Vancouver Foundation grant to create a pop-up dinner catered by recent Syrian refugees. Since that first dinner, Tayybeh has garnered national headlines, won Vancouver Magazine’s 2017 Foodies of the Year award, and changed the lives of the women who make the food.

“I had no idea what it would become, or that two and a half years later it would become my life,” says Elwan, who comes from Egypt, and worked on issues related to gender equality before founding Tayybeh.

She now runs the bustling operation from a commissary kitchen near Main Street, employing six female cooks, plus a raft of drivers, dishwashers and helpers of all genders. The enterprise, she says, has become a family. For the women that come to cook every day, success isn’t just measured in paycheques or public acclaim. It’s also been about finding a new community.

“We always had tears in our eyes for what we left behind. For our families. Since we started working, it’s nicer than before,” explains Omer, speaking in Arabic.

“Now we don’t have to think about all the things we left behind,” adds Hasan.

Their new careers have also meant changes in the family structure: Alambarabar’s husband is learning to cook. “He made a chicken!” she exclaims, to a chorus of laughter and disbelief. “He has to feed the children when I am not there.”

Immigrants are 30 per cent more likely to start a business than Canadian-born citizens, and refugees report higher rates of self-employment than their immigrant and Canadian-born counterparts, recent research by Immigrant Services Society of B.C. shows. Food service is one of the areas they are most likely to enter.

Figures provided by Jack Jedwab at the Association for Canadian Studies show that in 2016, 14.9 per cent of refugees in Canada were self-employed.

Mustafa Koc, a Ryerson University professor and food sociologist, says there is a long and rich history of refugee influence on the Canadian food landscape. “Each refugee wave, when they come in, most of them do not speak the language or have the skill set to enter into the labour market within the first year or two. Entering the work market through food, they find some space there.”

When refugees enter the food business out of necessity, they also introduce their culture to Canada through the food, says Koc.

“Syrian refugees who can’t speak the language find a way of showing their appreciation and gratitude to their host society through food, which is a very important step in integration,” says Koc.

“When people accept your food, it is an interaction, a welcoming, and for us, a way of showing them that they are welcomed. Food is a language, and we can speak it with each other.”

Food is a cultural gateway. “We are afraid of new foods, but excited and curious about them. We are all scavengers, our ancestors were always on the hunt for something new, something edible, so we are always curious.”

Refugee food traditions tend to be homey and affordable, says Koc, mentioning the emergence of Hungarian and Vietnamese cuisine during previous refugee arrivals. “Most are mom and pop operations,” says Koc. “It’s not expensive to try and our curiosity finds its match there.”

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