Rita, a Syrian refugee living in Germany, has launched a Facebook group called "Exiles' Kitchen" with the goal of bringing together the Syrian diaspora around traditional dishes. Syrian refugees use the Facebook group to share recipes and tips for finding ingredients from home.
Cooking and sharing food holds an important role in Syrian culture. However, it’s sometimes hard for members of the Syrian diaspora, spread out across Europe, to recreate both the social and physical aspect of the meals they were used to back home. The ingredients they need may be missing from shop's shelves in their new host countries.
So a Syrian woman named Rita, who now lives in Germany, decided to create a new Facebook group allowing Syrian refugees to come together around the metaphorical table and swap recipes, tips, and more. The group has more than 8,000 members. Each day, members post photos and recipes of the traditional Syrian dishes that they are making.
Other members share advice. For example, it can be tough to find certain traditional ingredients in host countries. For example, one refugee named Entesar who lives in Germany posted to ask for recommendations on a good substitute for semolina, a common ingredient in traditional Syrian food. Other people ask for advice on where to find fruits and vegetables that they used to eat in Syria.
In this post, members talk about the new food that they’ve tasted since arriving in their host countries.
Rim concocted a Syrian-Japanese meal in Jordan with a Japanese friend who used to live in Syria. As they ate traditional food, the two shared their memories of Damascus. Rim says that the kitchen is “the best place to express my feelings.”
Syrian refugee Malakeh Jazmati has been living in Germany since 2016 and is a member of the Facebook group. She has recently started out as a professional chef. This is what she said about the Facebook group:
Honestly, sometimes the group feels like an artistic competition — when people post photos of the Syrian dishes that they’ve prepared, they often accompany the photo with a little poem or a description in verse! Participating in this group has also helped me branch out — before, I used to be a food snob: I believed that food from Damascus was the best. However, now I’ve grown much more open to recipes from different parts of Syria.
"A consolation in exile”
Karmel shared a photo of the homemade cake that she decorated with the Norwegian flag.
When I arrived in Germany, I suffered from extreme loneliness. I spent most of the time at work. Cooking started as a hobby for me — I wasn’t a good cook when I was living in Syria.
I learned my first words of German in grocery stores. I started to make the dishes that we used to make at home in Damascus, and this helped me to feel better.
One day, I posted a photo of a dish that I had made on Facebook and that gave me the idea to build the page “Exiles' Kitchen”. My friends loved the idea so I started the group and, in no time at all, people living all over the world started sharing photos of the Syrian dishes that they had made.
Sharing this photo did me a lot of good. I didn’t feel like I was eating alone anymore. It was as if I was sharing my food with other people. The effort that I put into this group frees me from my loneliness.
This group has transformed into a source of hope for many people, and also a source of learning — and not just about cooking. Cooking is a way for us to promote Syrian culture. This little group of people has turned into a space built on the principles of freedom of opinion, respect for others and even democracy — something we never knew back home.
"Exiles' Kitchen” has managed to unite all Syrians, despite their political differences. We also organise cooking competitions. We ask participants to make a dish and upload the photos. Then, members of the group vote on the best one!
"Cooking is an escape from social pressure"
I’m currently working with several organisations to develop a project helping Syrian women integrate the labour market. We are working on setting up several fully-equipped kitchens where we can hold workshops to introduce women to jobs related to the catering and restaurant industry.
The goal is to provide opportunities to women refugees who want to integrate their host countries and get a foot in the labour market. Learning to cook can lead to job opportunities and create a path to integration for women. It’s an alternative to becoming isolated or only socialising within the Syrian community. Importantly, cooking is also an acceptable job even for women from conservative families.
I met a lot of refugee women who want to work, but their conservative environment doesn’t allow them to. In those cases, cooking is a way to escape from that social pressure. It also saves them from the isolation that many new refugees experience and allows them to escape the constraints that they might feel within their own families.
In the reception centres where many refugees live upon their arrival in Frankfurt, Germany, there are no kitchens. We worked with several associations and churches in Frankfurt to set up a kitchen for Afghan and Syrian women.