Syrian refugees find comfort at Toronto’s Depanneur

The west-end food haunt opens its kitchen to newly arrived Syrian refugees holed up in hotel rooms

Sanaa Alhamad beams at the bounty before her. Parsley, mint, lemons, garlic, tahini paste in tall jars – this is the food she knows and loves. The mother of four from Aleppo arrived in Canada in January with the United Nations’ help. 

She busies herself finely chopping the parsley for a huge batch of fresh citrusy tabouleh, the salad accompaniing the baharat-spice-infused kibbeh, or ground beef fritters, and hummus being prepared.

“Cooking here today, it makes me happy. It makes me feel useful,” she says, smiling. 

Alhamad is one of 10 women attending the latest session of Len Senater’s Newcomer Kitchen program. For many here today it’s the first time they’ve been on a subway, an escalator or inside a Canadian grocery store. The women, who shopped for ingredients to prepare a luncheon feast at Senater’s west-end food haunt, the Depanneur, are all newly landed Syrian refugees. 

Most of them have been living in hotels for at least a month, an arrangement that got Senater thinking. “One of the worst things about long-term hotel stays is you don’t usually get to eat properly because there’s nowhere to cook. I wondered, what are they eating? Are they going to the gas station and buying Doritos?” 

The Depanneur’s working kitchen isn’t used during the day. “Let them come and cook!” became Senater’s goal.

As simple as that sounds, reaching newly arrived refugees in hotels across the GTA turned into six weeks of frustration, including navigating a labyrinth of organizations and sitting through endless meetings.

“It was driving me a little nuts,” says Senater, even though he was working with a “brain trust” of volunteers from groups including the UN, the Arab Cultural Centre and the Welcome Project.

Finally, through what he calls kismet, one of the volunteers met a Syrian refugee couple who could speak English.

Twenty-five-year-old Rahaf Ala-kab-ni and her husband, Esmaeel Abou Fakher, had been through their own hotel stay and knew how to connect with others. 

“They did in one day what we couldn’t do in over a month,” says Senater. 

He opened up his kitchen and, with Alakabni’s help translating, “got out of the way,” giving the women the room they needed to work their magic.

Alhamad left Syria because she felt it wasn’t safe for her family any more and because food was getting scarce. Of the many army-imposed controls, including access to food, she says, there’s a saying in Syria that means something like “He who dies slowly….” That’s not what she wanted for her family. Her husband, a baker, is currently looking for work. 

She continues to stay upbeat through all the uncertainty. “I don’t like becoming pessimistic. It does me no good,” she says.

The Newcomer Kitchen project has helped her connect with her community. 

While looking to secure work or go back to school, Alakabni (who wants to get her teaching accreditation here) and her husband have put their translation and networking skills to good use connecting local organizations and Canadians with recently arrived Syrians. 

As she forms torpedo-like shells made with bulgur wheat for the kibbeh, later stuffing them with spiced ground meat, Alakabni sings tradi-tional Syrian folk songs with the others. 

“Today, cooking with these other women gives me special happiness. Speaking my language, making the food from our home, meeting new people – I like this so much,” she says.

Other groups of women hungry to cook, connect and feel “useful” as -Alhamad does will join the Newcomer Kitchen project. 

Senater hopes to start packaging the food they make for customers at the Depanneur to help pay for ingre-dients and the women’s work. So far, most of the food has been purchased either by Senater himself, through private donations or the generosity of the nearby No Frills.

He’s also working with Butler’s Pantry restaurateur Atique Azad to arrange food safety training in Arabic for the new cooks. 

“I’m trying to create a playbook to show others that this is possible, even across the country, and not just among the Syrian community. We’re showing that this is a way of connecting with any marginalized community.” 

Senater says the project could be replicated in restaurants across the GTA, especially in Scarborough and Mississauga, where many Syrians are relocating.

Until then, he’s happy to give these women a “chance to do their thing” in his kitchen, where they feel comfort and connection through food. “I can’t fix all the problems, but I can give them that one thing.” | @nowtoronto

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