It’s difficult to comprehend the pain and grief Syrian refugee Kawthar Barho is experiencing after losing all seven of her children in a house fire in their adopted community, Spryfield, a Halifax suburb, on February 19. Her husband, Ebraheim, remains in hospital with extensive burns, the family having fled the embattled nation just 18 months ago.
The Barho children ranged in age from four months to 15 years; seven white caskets were met by more than 2,000 mourners at their February 23 funeral.
The devastating story hit the families of Tayybeh: A Celebration of Syrian Cuisine especially hard. The Vancouver social enterprise employs women who similarly escaped war and violence to build new lives in the safe haven of Canada. These women are now supporting their families by cooking their deeply flavourful traditional foods for Tayybeh’s pop-up dinners, catered events, seasonal food truck, and stands at local markets.
One of the chefs, Inaas, is a mom who lost one of her five children in Syria. Her beloved 14-year-old son was murdered by ISIS for having the same first name as president Bashar al-Assad.
“The news [of the fire] left me completely speechless,” Inaas tells the Georgia Straight. “Having lost my dear son Bashar, I know how heartbreaking it is to live with the pain. Not long ago, there was a similar incident in Damascus where all the children in one family died in a fire from an exploding gas tank. These tragic stories are so painful because they are so close to home for us.”
(Members of the Tayybeh collective are finding it challenging to make ends meet in an area as expensive as Vancouver, but they still made a donation to the Barho family. The GoFundMe campaign is organized by the Imam Council of Halifax in cooperation with the Hants East Assisting Refugees Team Society, the group that sponsored the family to come to Canada. As part of itsupport of all Canadians, the organization has also contributed to the fire victims in Fort McMurray, sponsor initiatives like the Binners Project, and donate food to shelters in the Downtown Eastside.)
Although the group’s pop-up dinners have been extraordinarily successful, selling out in minutes, Tayybeh launched its catering service a year and a half after starting up due to so much demand and to help establish a more secure source of income for the women.
Tayybeh’s catering division now has multiple menus, such as à la carte, office lunches, receptions (cocktails and finger foods), seasonal, and, soon, weddings. Many options are vegan.
In addition to local favourites—like mutabbal, a creamy smoked-eggplant dip; a red-pepper spread called mhammara; and makloubeh, aromatic rice with aubergine, seasoned ground beef, almonds, and parsley—new menu items include lentil soup, olive-and-red-pepper pie, yogurt-cucumber dip, pea-and-meatball stew, vegan okra stew, fasolia bil zeit (vegan slow-cooked green beans), and a dessert called madlouka, a light angel-hair pastry topped with ashta—a type of Arabic cream—and pistachios.
“The real impetus to begin catering was our amazing Syrian women chefs’ need to securing a regular and sustainable source of income to support their families,” says Tayybeh founder Nihal Elwan. “The Lower Mainland is an expensive place to live, and with the language barrier of so many newcomers from Syria, the exquisite culinary skills of the Syrian women became the most immediate--and sometimes the only--way to make ends meet. It’s important for the catering workflow to be regular to give their families the financial security to flourish in Vancouver.
“Many more Syrian women in Vancouver, Surrey, and Burnaby would like to work with Tayybeh,” she adds. “We feel that as the catering service grows, we will be able to bring on more of these incredible Syrian women chefs and their family members to work with us. The Tayybeh chefs are proud of their extraordinary food and confident it will be loved by anyone who tastes it.”
Online reviews are a testament to that: so far, Tayybeh has 99 reviews on Facebook with a score of 4.9 out of 5. (More information is at Tayybeh.)
“Every time our chefs prepare food, they do so as if they are feeding their families,” Elwan says. “The main ingredient is lots of love.”
Filmmaker Eva Brownstein’s short documentary, “Tayybeh”, screens on March 9 as part of the Vancouver International Women in Film Festival, preceding Soulade Kaadan’s The Day I Lost my Shadow.More