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These Syrian Refugee Chefs are Rebuilding their Lives in their New Hometowns through Food

In the early 2000s, chef Mohammed Elkhaldy appeared regularly in Syrian cooking TV shows, while building a gastronomic empire in the Middle East. Nearly 200 restaurants were under his helm, across the UAE, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, as well as some 20 Orange Bar franchises, a mobile bar concept he founded offering orange-based foods. There was a restaurant in Damascus and even an organic food brand. But it all ended up abruptly when civil war hit Syria in 2011.

Syrian Chef Mohammad Elkhaldy in his kitchen in Paris.

Forced to continually reinvent himself – first briefly in Lebanon , then in Egypt, where he opened a new restaurant – Elkhaldy eventually had to start over in 2013, financially ruined by the ongoing turmoil of the Egyptian revolution. In an attempt to establish his family and his business, he sold all he had to pay for a boat that would take them to Europe. “You don’t wake up one day and choose to become a refugee,” says Elkhaldy. “I needed to be strong, not only for myself, but for my family, above all. I came here, to Paris, to work and share my culture with others – not to profit from the country’s social sustem or to beg on the streets. I believe in new beginnings.” Served in a welcoming and convivial atmosphere, Syrian dishes reflect the values of Levantine hospitality.

Sharing and inclusiveness still characterize the cuisine today. All over Europe, Syrian refugee chefs are rebuilding their lives in their new hometowns through food, while simultaneously empowering their origins. “My goal is to be able to open my eponymous restaurant in Paris,” shares Elkhaldy. Establishing a business in Europe, however, is often an uphill battle. “There is the language barrier, the bureaucracy, and the budgeting that are not easy tasks to manage, but I am slowly getting there with a lot of patience, work, and discipline.” Today, the chef offers Syrian catering and cooking masterclasses, and is solicited by clients including Kenzo, L’Oréal, and the city of Paris.

Nabil Attar, another Syrian chef based in France, was faced with a similar destiny. A former IT manager, Attar’s passion for Syrian gastronomy helped him rebuild his life. Since 2015, he has been at the helm of his own restaurant, Närenj, in Orléans, where he and his wife serve a blend of Middle Eastern and French avors with subtle and distinctive Mediterranean accents. Attar’s signature dish – frikeh with smoked beef and roasted green wheat harvested before maturity – helped the restaurant become a reference in France for contemporary Syrian cuisine. “Many of our customers tell us that it is as if we allow them to travel to Syria without ever leaving the table,” smiles Attar. “Back home, we had a good situation and standard of living before the conflict started. Since moving here, our ultimate goal has been to regain the same quality of life. The challenge is also to prove that refugees can contribute to the wealth of their respective host nations.”

Syrian Chef Nabil Attar

The willingness to succeed abroad while fighting prejudice is what motivated former law student Mahmoud Barkawi to open a catering company in Amsterdam. FaceFood offers fusion food based on Syrian cuisine. “When I came to the Netherlands, I received an invitation to EatToMeet, a dining event where you can taste a variety of dishes and meet people from all over the world,” he recalls. “This inspired me to start my own business and share my culture by creating delicious dishes for others.” Barkawi has always been passionate about cooking. After eeing Syria in 2012, the young apprentice cook worked at various restaurants – rst in Egypt for four years, then brie y in Turkey – before moving to the Netherlands in 2016, where he applied to study at Hotelschool The Hague. Empowered by his multifaceted experience and a strong sense of discipline, he now aims to become a full- edged and independent entrepreneur. “I always wanted to integrate myself in the Netherlands, which is why I decided to take both Dutch and English classes as soon as I could. My law diploma was not accepted here, so I engaged in hospitality and gastronomy. It has been a ful lling experience, and I learned all about culinary traditions from different cultures.”

Chef Mahmoud Barkawi displaying Barkwawi’s typical Syrian dishes.

Feeling like part of an international family is something of the dish of the day when you eat at Mo’s Eggs, a series of pop-up brunches founded by former political science student Mohamad Rahimeh, a Syrian refugee in London. Rahimeh has not always been a chef in the cool places of the British capital, such as Lost Boys Pizza in North London, where his Syrian brunches are now held. The foundations of Mo’s Eggs are rooted in the Jungle, the notorious refugee camp in Calais that was dismantled in October 2016. There, Rahimeh worked as a voluntary interpreter to facilitate communication between refugees and activists, notably for the food distribution at the camp. Afterward, he would invite people back to his tent where he would cook tasty dishes made with eggs and tomato sauce and fresh naan from the camp’s Afghan bakers. These dishes, prepared with the few resources and ingredients available on-site, inspired his contemporary culinary creations that now de ne his brunches, including one called Jungle Eggs, a reinterpretation of the traditional shakshuka. “I didn’t know how to cook before I got to Calais. But one day, my friend broke his leg trying to cross the border at night; I had to look after him, and that meant I had to cook for him,” he shares.

Chef Mohamad Rahimeh

After the Jungle was dismantled, Rahimeh arrived in the UK in the back of a truck. With the support of friends and volunteers who made it possible for him to stage his pop-up brunches regularly, once his refugee status was granted, his Jungle Eggs became a sensation. “Making delicious food today with Mo’s Eggs and sharing it with others by eating all together is my way of giving back the love I was shown during this dif cult time of my life,” shares Rahimeh. His goal is to turn his monthly pop- up brunch into a full-time business, with pop-ups in major cities across the continent. “People across Europe still have a lot of prejudice against refugees in general,” he notes. “I want to show them that we are a strength for their countries, not a burden.” There is no better way to build bridges between cultures and people than by sharing recipes and eating together.

Originally published in the fall/winter 2019 issue of Vogue Man Arabia 

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