Syrian pop-up feasts produced by women refugees become success story in Vancouver

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      Like many Canadians, Vancouver research consultant Nihal Elwan was moved to action when, beginning in 2015, harrowing reports of the global migrant crisis led to the arrival of over 25,000 Syrian refugees in Canada.

      Given her background in gender and women’s studies in the Middle East, however, it wasn’t long before Elwan realized she wanted to do something to aid Syrian women, many of whom faced difficulties networking and finding full-time B.C. employment since they previously served as housewives in Syria.

      Her solution involved a component many people look to for comfort when placed in a foreign setting: food. Specifically, Syrian food—an “uncommercialized” cuisine that the Cairo-born Elwan claims is, hands down, the best to come out of the region. “The idea, initially, was to put together a dinner for a group of Syrian women and just invite some people from my neighbourhood to come to this dinner and, you know, get to know them and see what Syrian food is about,” she tells the Straight by phone.

      Elwan asked four Syrian women—all of whom landed in Metro Vancouver with their families in the last year—to cook up traditional dishes from their home cities of Aleppo, Homs, Daraa, and Idlib for interested locals. The event would offer the women a chance to flex their skills in the kitchen while practising their English and getting to know the community.

      After securing a small grant from the Vancouver Foundation and a venue in which to host the dinner, she published an open invitation to the fete on Facebook. The response was overwhelming. “We didn’t know where this was going,” Elwan recalls. “We had no budget, so we didn’t advertise. We just sort of let it go and, incredibly enough, the event sold out in a day.”

      Elwan notes that traditional Syrian dishes like kibbeh, tabbouleh, and mutabbal have been wildly popular with guests at the first three Tayybeh pop-ups.
      Food Connections

      Rave reviews from guests and inquiries about when the next dinner would be happening led Elwan and the cooks to launch a series of pop-up feasts titled Tayybeh: A Celebration of Syrian Cuisine. Its name pronounced “tie-bay”, the term is the feminine construction of the Arabic word for “kind” or “generous”. In the Levantine dialect—a colloquial form of Arabic spoken in parts of the Middle East—the word also means “delicious”.

      “Put all of this together and no name could have been a better fit,” says Elwan. “We’re a group of women creating delicious food.”

      Four months later, Tayybeh’s core collective of chefs has grown from four to six women. Its signature pop-up dinners—the group has hosted three around the city thus far—continue to sell out. There, dozens of Vancouverites have had the pleasure of indulging in a buffet-style spread that includes homemade plates like kibbeh, a baked or fried meatball typically crafted with finely ground meat, bulgur, and Middle Eastern spices; fatayer, a savoury pastry stuffed with cheese, spinach, or other ingredients; and mutabbal, a popular appetizer made from smoked and grilled eggplant, tahini, olive oil, and yogurt.

      Past events have taken place at Tamam Fine Palestinian Cuisine, Shaughnessy Heights United Church, and St. Mary’s Kerrisdale Church. Tickets are $43 each and include access to three all-you-can-eat courses, plus dessert and tea.

      “The beautiful thing about this is that these women cook exactly as they would cook in their homes for their families,” explains Elwan. “It’s not factorywide scale; it’s not like a massive restaurant. It’s not a chain type of thing. They cook the way they would cook at home.”

      From left to right, cooks Leena Al Ahmad and her daughter, Loubana; Heba Najib; Raghda Hassan; and Um Omar greet guests at a Tayybeh pop-up dinner.
      Dima Yassine

      All proceeds from the ticket sales benefit the Syrian women and their families. Many of the chefs’ partners and children, Elwan notes, are happy to lend a hand during the cultural soirees, which involve a live band performing traditional Arabic tunes, too. “The husbands and the boys are also taking part,” she says. “They’re doing the dishes, they’re helping set up. They’re helping clean up, which is really lovely because it’s a bit of a reversal of the typical gender roles you see coming out of the region.”

      During every Tayybeh event, attendees are introduced to the chefs, who emerge from the kitchens to share their names, where they’re from, how long they’ve been in Canada, and their hopes for the future. The interactions humanize the women, stresses Elwan, while helping them to make friends and build connections. “They become people—not just people you read about or people on the news.”

      For International Women’s Day, Tayybeh will be catering the Vancouver International Women in Film Festival’s opening gala at the Vancity Theatre on March 8. That same night, a group of Syrian women chefs will also be serving up Middle Eastern fare at a fundraising benefit at the North Shore Women’s Centre. March’s pop-up dinner, meanwhile, is still in the works. (Follow the group’s Facebook page to keep updated.)

      And while the banquets and catering gigs offer Vancouverites a rare taste of authentic, home-style Syrian cuisine, they are, above all, an opportunity to break down the wall that so often divides us from our neighbours.

      “I think the monthly dinners are a beautiful opportunity for both sides to get to know ‘the Other’,” says Elwan. “And there’s a lot of acceptance, a lot of appreciation, a lot of gratitude on both sides. Our guests get to eat incredibly delicious items, and once that happens, all interactions over food end up being really beautiful.”

      Follow Lucy Lau on Twitter @lucylau.