News / Toronto

Syrian refugee women cooking up a business in Toronto

Toronto's Depanneur can't keep up with demand for delicious refugee-made meals

Young recent Syrian migrant Jury Musri eats watermelon during a break in the preparation of a typical Syrian meal at a community kitchen in Toronto on Thursday July 7, 2016. The Newcomer Kitchen Project is an initiative for recent Syrian migrant women, organized by Len Senater and Cara Benjamin-Pace at the Depanneur restaurant in Toronto.

the canadian press

Young recent Syrian migrant Jury Musri eats watermelon during a break in the preparation of a typical Syrian meal at a community kitchen in Toronto on Thursday July 7, 2016. The Newcomer Kitchen Project is an initiative for recent Syrian migrant women, organized by Len Senater and Cara Benjamin-Pace at the Depanneur restaurant in Toronto.

Walk into the Depanneur, a restaurant and gathering-place in Toronto, on any Thursday, and you’ll be hit with savoury and distinctly Syrian smells like kibbeh (bulgur balls with spiced lamb), Khyar belaban (cucumber-mint dip), or Torab el Melook (a trifle-like concoction of pineapple, custard and crumbled cookies).   

You’ll also see around 10 Syrian women — from 20-somethings with babes in arms to grandmothers — busily making and packaging gourmet meals.

They’re part of a project called the Newcomer Kitchen. It got its modest start in April after Len Senater, The Depanneur’s owner, learned government-sponsored Syrian refugees were cooped up in crowded hotels.

He invited a small group of mothers with “incredible culinary talent” to cook traditional, multi-course Syrian meals in his expansive commercial kitchen, which sits empty most of the day.

They’d take the food back to their families, and any extra could be sold to cover costs and provide the women with a little extra income.

It turned into something much bigger.

Now that refugees are out of hotels, the Newcomer Kitchen has evolved into a brisk meal-delivery business involving about 40 newcomer women in all.

Esmaeel Abofakher and Rishdia el Musri help four year old, Jury Musri prepare a typical Syrian meal in Toronto on Thursday July 7, 2016. The Newcomer Kitchen Project is an initiative for recent Syrian migrant women, organized by Len Senater and Cara Benjamin-Pace at the Depanneur restaurant in Toronto.

the canadian press

Esmaeel Abofakher and Rishdia el Musri help four year old, Jury Musri prepare a typical Syrian meal in Toronto on Thursday July 7, 2016. The Newcomer Kitchen Project is an initiative for recent Syrian migrant women, organized by Len Senater and Cara Benjamin-Pace at the Depanneur restaurant in Toronto.

The meals go on sale online for $20 every Tuesday morning. The women spend all day Thursday cooking, and the food’s ready for pickup or delivery in time for dinner. Any profits left after grocery costs and a small overhead are split among the cooks. Last week, they took home $120 each — about $18 an hour.
Since pictures of the very first gathering went viral, demand for the fresh, authentic Syrian meals has far outstripped supply. The program has earned an endorsement from famed Syrian chef and author Anissa Helou. 

Participants have started catering top-tier events, pop-up style, including a Canada Day iftar (Ramadan meal), attended by Toronto Mayor John Tory.

“It’s incredible to see the women laughing and talking and singing,” Senater said, “interacting in a way they might not have had a chance to do in quite some time.”

Senater and Cara Benjamin-Pace, the Depanneur’s manager, are planning the next steps: incorporate as a non-profit, hire staff, and create a guide for restaurants across Canada and beyond to copy their success. With those goals in mind, they’ve raised almost $26,000 so far on the crowd-funding site FundRazr.

That’s good news for husband-and-wife team Esmaeel Abou Fakher and Rahaf Alakbani, refugees who were instrumental in getting the Newcomer Kitchen off the ground. A few months ago, they were stuck in a Travelodge. Now they’re newcomer liaisons.

Alakbani, who’s bilingual, is a go-between, helping recruit refugee women and make sure they’re confident in their roles.

“They trust me and my husband,” Alakbani said in a May interview. “I asked, ‘Do you miss cooking?’ and they said ‘Of course!’”   

The chance to talk and share a meal together was just the start of the bounty of benefits.

Fakher emphasized how important it is for newcomers to earn income and feel independent in an unfamiliar place.

“It’s not easy, rent is expensive,” he said, “The life here is also hard, (but) not like our country.”  

Thanks to mentorship from volunteers, the women are practicing English and becoming pros at using public transit.

Several  have earned a food handling certificate in Arabic. Local restaurants have come knocking, looking to poach them for other jobs.

“I’m really interested in how to empower women who otherwise have not really had fair access to wealth and opportunity,” Benjamin-Pace said. “They’re changing before our eyes.”

Participants are Christian, Druze and Muslim. In Syria, they might have been divided by a bitter conflict. But food has a way of bringing people together.

“Healing and reconciliation are happening in our kitchen,” Benjamin-Pace said.  The results are delicious: “Even Len and I, who are around good food everyday, are sometimes overwhelmed at how good the food is.”  

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