Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 July 2019

Food fight: Meet the woman advocating for Syrians through delicious cuisine

Majeda Khouri claimed asylum in London in 2017 and is already making a lasting impact on its residents

Majeda cooked a Syrian-Italian fusion menu for the Supper Club. Photo by The National
Majeda cooked a Syrian-Italian fusion menu for the Supper Club. Photo by The National

A human rights activist has turned to cooking to educate Londoners on the plight of Syrians trapped in besieged areas.

Syrian cook Majeda Khouri, 46, has taken the latest step on her refugee journey by hosting a supper club to raise awareness of the distressing humanitarian situation in her native Syria and launching her own food business.

Formerly a child therapist, Majeda sought asylum in the UK via Lebanon in 2017, following her arrest in Syria for helping displaced people. Alone and unable to work, cooking provided her with a link to home and her two sons, and soon after, a way to educate British people about the plight of her friends and family back home.

Charity Migrateful which empowers refugees by running cookery classes led by migrant chefs, helped Majeda set up supper clubs and classes to build her confidence and help her integrate into her community - an opportunity she has picked up and run with.

“Most Syrian ladies have a passion for cooking,” said Majeda. “You’ll find the most important dishes in Syrian cuisine actually take a long time to prepare, but can be eaten in half an hour.”

“I believe that food can bring people together to listen to each other. Everyone can share food, we can share emotions. We can share love.”

It is this time and dedication to the craft of cooking that brings people to Majeda’s supper clubs, but what stays with them is what they learn.

At most of her events, she will take a moment to describe the at-times hopeless situation in Syria, drawing on her own experience of sneaking food to areas contained by the Syrian government and letting diners know how they can help.

Majeda isn’t the first to use food to raise social and political issues, but her approach has been strikingly different. In 2017, she held a dinner serving ‘siege soup’, the only meal available to civilians trapped in Ghouta and other areas surrounded by Syrian armed forces loyal to Bashir Al Assad.

The evening brought together a Syrian doctor on Skype from Turkey and a woman currently living in Ghouta to talk about the conditions in besieged areas and ended with every guest signing and sending a letter to their local MP imploring the British government to take action.

Inserting her activism into every activity she undertakes in important, Majeda says, because she is able to speak about what living under the Assad regime is really like.

“I always speak about what's happening because I am a human rights activist and I know a lot of stories,” she said.

“There are a lot of women who need someone to speak on their behalf. So I have a responsibility here to do something for the people inside.”

This mission is becoming ever clearer with her latest event, a collaboration with food market Mercato Metropolitano’s head chef Gabriele Bagni for Refugee Week.

Mercato Metropolitano, a gargantuan 45,000-square-foot food and drink market space, regularly plays host to refugee cooking workshops and skills classes. It also helps budding chefs get their business running by charging a percentage of sales as rent rather than a flat rate.

“Mercato Metropolitano is immensely proud to support refugees and to be able to provide them with much needed education, resources, facilities, connections and economic opportunities,” said Andrea Rasca, the market’s founder.

“Across cultures, food is about coming together, sharing and community – which is what we are passionate about.”

Serving an Italian-Syrian fusion menu, Tuesday’s diners were treated to moutabel, ravioli, freekeh and panna cotta with a hefty serving of reality on the plight Syrians are suffering in Idlib.

True to her activist form, Majeda sported a t-shirt bearing the words “Stop bombing Idlib” for the event.

At least 352 civilians have been killed in northwest Syria, including 75 children, in the past six weeks, the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organisations has found, largely due to bombing raids by Russia and Assad’s regime.

Figures from Refugees International suggest at least two million people depend on humanitarian assistance to survive in Idlib - and access is becoming increasingly difficult for aid agencies.

Many have fled to border camps which are full to bursting. More than 800, 000 people are currently in Atmeh, an overflowing camp by the Turkish border with no toilet facilities. Others sleep in olive groves in an attempt to escape the air bombardment.

Majeda said she would rather be in a peaceful Syria, but in the meantime, she has set up a life for herself, starting her own catering business off the back of her successful supper clubs.

The Syrian Sunflower employs and trains Syrian women, giving them skills and an income to support themselves in a new city.

“I was training women how to communicate with children back in Syria, so I have these skills,” Majeda says. “I will use it to train women to have their own job here and to integrate more into society.”

Although she wouldn’t call London home - “I am forced to be here. I didn't choose to be here,” she said - Majeda appreciates the city’s melting pot of cultures.

“It's very welcoming because it's a global city,” she said.

“You don't feel like a stranger in this city because you go out, you hear all languages, you meet all nationalities. This is why London is very important for refugees.”

Updated: June 21, 2019 09:55 AM

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