Refugee Women Cook Up Syrian Cuisine To Eke Out A Living In Turkey

Apr 15, 2018

With the Syrian conflict now in its eighth year, many of the millions of Syrians living as refugees in Turkey have long since realized they're unlikely to make it home anytime soon. But a group of women is refusing to sit at home and wait for peace. Instead, these women are turning their knowledge of Syrian cooking into a business.

The "Women's Solidarity Kitchen," is a former Istanbul textile factory converted into a commercial kitchen. A knot of Syrian children plays in one corner, separated from the cooking area by a small fence.

A young woman named Feride Abic shows the setup.

"The first thing we do is wash our hands, find our gloves and wash the food," she says, adding that complying with commercial food safety and hygiene rules was the first thing they had to learn. Initially, the women began making jams and preserves for sale, but soon expanded to Syrian-style mezze (appetizers), breads, salads and stews.

Fifty-five-year-old Maryam Ahmed from northeastern Syria is one of the leaders of the group. She says they're just getting started, but it feels great to be doing something useful rather than simply being a burden on their host country.

"Now, we're starting to feel more like we belong here, like we have lives, actually," she says with a smile. "When we escaped from the war we were really depressed, just sitting behind closed doors. Now, we feel part of the community, it's much better."

One of the Turkish volunteers helping to get this new enterprise off the ground is Zeynep Kurmus Hurbas. I met her two years ago, distributing clothes and food to needy families. She says the impetus for the kitchen came from the women themselves, who wanted both to help support their families and to have a sense of purpose as their stay in Turkey continues year after year.

Hurbas says it's been fun getting the kitchen up and running – with help from a grant that allowed them to buy commercial-grade refrigeration, storage and cooking equipment. She says it's also been delicious.

"They're doing falafels really well, and I never actually ate falafels before because I didn't like them," she says. "But they make it differently – they put sesame seeds on top, and it's lightly fried, so it's like really crispy on the outside and really smooth on the inside."

Small steps toward addressing big problems

Analysts say these small scale initiatives go at least some way toward responding to the major problems Turkey faces in supporting more than 3 million refugees. Metin Corabatir , president of the Research Center on Asylum and Migration, in Ankara says Turkey would like, for instance, to move the minority of Syrian refugees still living in camps into more permanent housing – but a growing share of the Turkish population doesn't like hearing the words "refugees" and "permanent" in the same sentence.

"Nobody knows what to do - which includes from the top down," he says. "That is why Mr. President (Recep Tayyip) Erdogan occasionally puts forward some ideas like giving them citizenship. But all these things create new public reaction from the host community."

As the women planned for a weekend of cooking recently, Zeynep Hurbas says they've been thrilled by some early successes: at one three-day conference they catered, their food vanished so quickly on the first day they stayed up much of the night making more.

But Hurbas knows there's also a somber message behind this transition from helpless refugees to active community members - for these families, and millions like them, home is still far away. That's why these business connections between Syrians and Turkish shop owners matter.

"And that's why I tell you, you know, it's important for that Syrian woman to go shopping from that Turkish store," she says. "Because at one point, in 10 years, their children will marry Turkish children. Because – I'm just very pessimistic about this, but I think this is not going to end anytime soon."

She hopes she's wrong about that, but she takes some comfort in knowing that at least one group of Syrian women has something to look forward to each day, as the conflict grinds on.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

As we have been reporting this weekend, the U.S.-led raids in Syria were limited, targeting suspected chemical weapons sites. But that is just the latest chapter in Syria's brutal civil war, which is now in its eighth year. Millions of Syrians have fled the carnage in their homeland. Of those refugees, more than 3 1/2 million are now in Turkey. They often live on meager rations and struggle to fill the hours in refugee camps. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports on a group of Syrian women who have found a way to beat the boredom and help some of their fellow refugees.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: The first thing that hits you is the noise - Syrian children playing in one corner, separated by a small fence from the rest of the large space, a former textile factory that's been transformed into a commercial kitchen.

The women's solidarity refugee kitchen is the new creation of a group of Syrian women who looked at the apparently never-ending war in their homeland and decided they'd better find a way to support their families here in Turkey. A young woman named Feride Abic shows me the setup.

FERIDE ABIC: (Speaking Turkish).

KENYON: She says, "the first thing we do is wash our hands, find our gloves and wash the food." Working in a commercial kitchen has more rules than cooking at home, as they make large quantities of Syrian-style Mezze, breads, salads and stews. Helping the women get their venture off the ground is Zeynep Kurmus Hurbas. She's a Turkish woman I met two years ago, distributing clothes and food to needy families. She says these women asked if there was something useful they could do. And when a grant made it possible to open this kitchen, they launched the catering business.

ZEYNEP KURMUS HURBAS: But they're doing falafels really well, and I never actually ate falafels before here because I didn't like them. But they make it differently. They put sesame seeds on top. And it's lightly fried, so it's, like, really crispy on the outside and really smooth on the inside.

KENYON: Fifty-five-year-old Maryam Ahmed is from Northeastern Syria. She says they're just getting started, but it feels great to be useful instead of a burden on their host city.

MARYAM AHMED: (Through interpreter) Now, we're starting to feel more like we belong here, like we have lives actually. When we escaped from the war, we were really depressed, just sitting behind closed doors. Now, we feel part of the community. It's much better.

KENYON: It's a case of a grassroots, small-scale solution to larger problems vexing Turkey. Metin Corabatir at the Research Center for Migration and Asylum says Turkey would like, for instance, to move Syrian refugees out of camps and into more permanent housing. But a growing share of the Turkish population doesn't like hearing the words refugees and permanent in the same sentence.

METIN CORABATIR: Nobody knows what to do, which includes from the top down. That is why Mr. President Erdogan occasionally puts forward some ideas like giving them citizenship. But all these things create new public reaction.

KENYON: As the women planned for a weekend of cooking, Zeynep Hurbas says they've had early success. At one three-day conference they catered, their food vanished so quickly on the first day, they stayed up much of the night making more. But Hurbas knows this transition from helpless refugees to active community members also confirms something she told me two years ago - for these people and millions like them, home is still far away.

HURBAS: And that's why I tell you, you know, it's important for that Syrian woman to go shopping from that Turkish store because at one point, in 10 years, their children will marry Turkish children because - I'm just very pessimistic about this, but I think this is not going to end anytime soon.

KENYON: She hopes she's wrong. But for now, it remains just a hope. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.