By Katie Foote, Epicure & Culture contributor
Nihal Elwan moved to Vancouver in 2014, just before a surge of Syrian refugees arrived in Canada as a result of the global migrant crisis.
While Nihal is Egyptian, she volunteered a few informational sessions for these newcomers, where she met many women and children who faced formidable challenges.
They arrived in one of the most expensive cities in North America with no housing, a language barrier and families to support.
Elwan felt a strong desire to improve the situation and help refugees in Canada, especially with her background in International Development with a focus on gender and women’s studies.
How to create meaningful work for Syrian women refugees who had previously been housewives back home.
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Inspiration arrived when Elwan was raving about Syrian food to a Canadian neighbor.
While Syrian cuisine is acknowledged as some of the best food in the Middle East by people in the region, it is largely undiscovered outside.
She earned a small grant to sponsor a pop-up dinner, with food prepared by four recent arrivals, as a way to empower these Syrian women refugees to share their cooking with the Canadian community.
Even without advertising, tickets sold out in a day for the first dinner in October 2016. None of these ladies had cooked outside their homes, so they shyly peered around the corner and smiled with pride when attendees helped themselves to seconds.
Birth Of Tayybeh
Enthusiastic guests continued asking Elwan when the next dinner would happen.
Together with the chefs, they decided to launch a dinner series called Tayybeh: A Celebration of Syrian Cuisine.
Its name — pronounced “tie-bay” — is the feminine construction of the Arabic word for “kind” or “generous”. In the Syrian dialect of Arabic, the word also means “delicious.”
Suddenly, Elwan and the ladies — none of whom had formal culinary or small business training — found themselves “throwing their heart, souls and spirits” into these meals.
Syrian food is incredibly diverse, so even the same dish could be prepared differently in various regions of the country.
Commonly, chefs from different parts of Syria, compare recipes and playfully defend their local version as superior. Syrian cooking is also highly seasonal, utilizing local ingredients; so Tayybeh has a vast, rapidly changing menu.
The food often involves meat dishes, though includes many vegetarian and vegan options, which appeal to Vancouver’s eco-conscious crowd.
Tayybeh specializes in Syrian comfort food, prepared as the women would cook for their families. For example, “Mahshi Malfoof” is slow-cooked cabbage stuffed with bulgur wheat and pomegranate molasses in a tangy tomato sauce. Meat lovers may try “Makloubeh,” slow-cooked aromatic rice and eggplant topped with lightly seasoned ground beef, almonds and parsley.
All proceeds benefit the Syrian women refugees and their families.
Elwan refers to Tayybeh affectionately as her “second baby,” and the operation has continued to grow.
They are a full-time catering company that continues to host pop-up dinners, now has a food truck in downtown Vancouver and a tent at UBC Farm.
The staff increased to four chefs, to six, and now eight women cook for Tayybeh. Some of their daughters help with dishes and working the food truck.
These women are incredibly invested in the growth of the company, even working tirelessly in hot kitchens during the months of Ramadan where they must fast from sunrise to sunset.
Tayybeh’s impact on the women, their families and the community has been profound.
These ladies are making money for the first time in their lives and feel a huge sense of empowerment from “holding the purse strings.”
Arriving in a new city can be isolating, especially in Vancouver’s grey, rainy winters; but working for Tayybeh gives these women a reason to wake up in the morning and a sense of purpose.
The food is prepared in a shared kitchen, where they can practice English with others and they are always introduced at pop-up dinners.
Attendees love to meet the faces behind the food. Plus, hearing about the women’s homes and families “humanizes” the refugees Canadians may otherwise only see on television.
It’s not uncommon to see dinner attendees hugging the chefs, testifying to the warm, welcoming atmosphere at the pop-ups.
So, what’s next for Tayybeh and their work to help refugees in Canada?
They have a busy summer ahead with catering, the food truck and festivals around the city.
The hope is to continue to employ more women and continue to expand the number of people who can enjoy their food.
Often, repeat visitors snag tickets to the pop-up dinners, which always sell out quickly.
Keep an eye on their facebook page for upcoming events.
Do you have other suggestions for ways to help refugees in Canada? Any insight into empowering Syrian women refugees? Please share in the comments below!
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