Raghda Hassan, with her hair tucked into an immaculate white scarf, is preparing to make Knafeh, a Arabic cheese-based dessert enveloped with a crunchy vermicelli style dough and pistachio nuts on top. The slap of thin rubber gloves echoes through the room as she and her co-worker Hasne Sheikh (who goes by the name Um Omar) sprinkle the dough evenly, making sure not to miss any spots. Um Omar’s light green eyes are intense with concentration.
The moment of tension breaks when Raghda sees a camera pointed at her work station.
She quickly whisks the metal bowls on the table out of view for the photo.
"They'll think ‘these ladies' workstation is so messy!'” she jokes, as her colleagues burst into laughter. The station is already tidy, but Hassan takes her work seriously, and takes care to show put the best foot forward for her workplace.
Raghda Hassan and Um Omar are Syrian refugees. They fled with their families to Canada and settled in the Vancouver area over a year ago. Coming from a country where just around 14 per cent of the female population is an active part of the workforce, according to World Bank data, they grew up expecting that they would be homemakers. But like many Syrian women, they’ve ventured into the world of work for the first time as refugees, and were fortunate to land their first job at Tayybeh. Tayybeh is a new Vancouver-based company that caters Syrian food for local customers and is managed by women.
They’ve found support not only from their husbands (who frequently help at Tayybeh's events) and local clients, but also from Canadian women veterans in the catering industry. And in an upcoming event on March 22, they're giving back to Vancouver's community catering a special event to support the Downtown Eastside Women's Centre, an emergency night shelter and drop-in centre for vulnerable women.
Syrian refugees, as women, encounter challenges along the way
Nihal Elwan, the founder of Tayybeh, chats with the women as she oversees the catering at Comissary Connect kitchen — a shared professional kitchen space tucked away on a side street 10 minutes from Main Street SkyTrain Station. Educated at the London School of Economics, Elwan has worked around the world in international development for over a decade. With no experience in business or even catering, Elwan initially set up Tayybeh (which has the dual meaning of “kind” and “delicious” in Syrian Arabic) as a means of helping women find their confidence and connect with other Syrian refugee women, as well as longtime Canadians, over food.
“Many refugee women want to work, but they find it hard to get a foot in the door,” Elwan said. “It’s hard even for immigrants who come to Canada with a plan, because you need Canadian experience. A lot of these women have excellent cooking skills, but they come here not knowing the language, not knowing the Canadian system of sending resumes and doing job interviews, and it’s hard for them to know where they start.”
“When Raghda first called me about cooking for Tayybeh, I asked her to come see me in Vancouver — she lives in Surrey. She said, ‘Oh no, I can’t. I’ve never taken the train before, and I can’t read the signs. Well, she came, and now she confidently goes everywhere in Vancouver and Surrey by train.”
Elwan initially rented kitchens at churches and community spaces to cater ‘pop up dinners’ for Canadians, as a means to introduce them to the delights of Syrian cooking. The Syrian dishes they tasted was a new experience for many locals—Kibbeh (a famous dish of bulgur, minced onions, and finely ground meat and spices), maashi (zucchini stuffed with rice and meat), fattoush — crispy bread salad made from toasted or fried pieces of Arabic flat bread combined with mixed greens and other vegetables, such as radishes and tomatoes.
Today, Tayybeh employs five permanent Syrian refugee female chefs and two who are more ‘on call,’ working five days a week in the shared kitchen with cooks, pastry chefs, and professionals from other culinary businesses.
Behind the women gleams a silver industrial freezer, donated by Les Dames D’Escoffier — a decades-old association of women in the food and wine industry who work on the principle of helping other women in their line of work. The women at Les Dames also helped Elwan create a business plan, so that she could manage Tayybeh’s costs and build a sustainable path toward growth.
"It gives me pride," Raghda said. "Before, my kids never used to ask me for anything because I always had to ask my husband for money... But these days, my kids ask me for things, too."
As the women pat out the dough, a young man from a nearby French patisserie business wanders over and offers them a fresh sample of a delicious-looking fresh berry dessert. The Tayybeh ladies offer a taste of their yalangi, or grape leaves stuffed with rice. Another man wanders in and asks Elwan how much Tayybeh’s falafels would cost if bought in bulk.
“We’ve now gotten to the point of breaking even,” Elwan says, with pride. “We’re also hoping to launch our food cart, in May. Things are going well.”
Vancouver’s Tayybeh isn’t the only place where women are using food to connect. In Toronto, Syrian refugee women at the Newcomer Kitchen famously bring together a collective of 60 cooks who make take-out dinners every week for $20 a piece. As reported in the New York Times, the arrival of over 50,000 newcomers from Syria has meant that cities are experiencing the “green shoots of a Syrian-food boom.” But Elwan makes clear that not everyone has it in them to do the work that Tayybeh’s chefs are doing. The women need to consistently execute excellent meals and be able to complete big orders on time, which demands dedication and focus.
Um Omar, who is the oldest member of the group, has been with the group since day one, and has recruited other women to the team. She shares her story about working in catering with everyone in her English language class, and some Syrian women approach her to see if they can try their hand at Tayybeh as well.
"Look, it's Chef Raghda!”
Meanwhile, the women have come to see themselves differently since starting their work at Tayybeh.
Hassan says her dream is now for Tayybeh to grow and become famous, so that when people pass her by in the area , several blocks away, is the scenic Main Street Skytrain area seawall, when they see me walking in Vancouver, they'll turn and say, "Look, it's Chef Raghda!”
Her eyes shine as she says she looks forward to one day when she’ll be able to afford things through her work: a university education for her children, a home, a car.
For Hassan, becoming a caterer has changed her own role within the family, and her perception of herself.
"It gives me pride," she said. "Before, my kids never used to ask me for anything because I always had to ask my husband for money—which was never a problem because my husband never said no. But these days, my kids ask me for things, too."
Once while busy at work, she’d missed a phone call from her grade five son’s school, saying he’d broken his arm. She regularly checks her phone now, but knows this is the same situation for many Canadian women who balance their work and life.
For Um Omar, the job is what allows her to earn a stable income for her family.
"I have to do it because my husband is old and can’t work," she said. Her two adult sons have kidney disease requiring dialysis, which forces them away from work at times. She's taken on the role of a reliable breadwinner to help the family pay their bills and make rent. Being over 50, spending long hours on her feet takes more of a toll on her perhaps than it does on other women in the group.
"It’s very hard on my body. Everything I do, I have to do standing," she said, touching her lower back. “[My kids] ask me, ‘Mom are you tired, is this tiring you out? But I know they’re also very proud of me.”
According to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, Syrian refugee women on the whole have made extraordinary steps toward gaining work experience since arriving.
"Our goal is for refugees to be self-sufficient and gainfully employed, but this is a long-term goal and requires the participation of all players, including government, businesses and civil society," IRCC commented in an email. "While precise figures...are not yet available, statistics from some internal research in 2014 showed that just over 44 per cent of female privately sponsored refugees and about a quarter of female government-sponsored refugees 15 and over had some employment income in their first year."
Syrian refugees proud to be women making it in the business world
Elwan says she knows the catering business in Vancouver is very competitive. And as a young mother of a two-year-old child, she also has to manage dropping her son off at daycare and sprint to the bus stop to get to work, then rush to pick him up on time before the 5:30 p.m. limit.
“It’s the struggle of every working woman,” Elwan says. “But it’s even harder for the ladies of Tayybeh because they also have to go to English language school right after work.”
Because the struggle of women in work is universal, some seasoned female professionals have jumped in to help.
Karen Dar Woon, a Vancouver-based chef and member of Les Dames d’Escoffier BC, said her organization was moved to help Tayybeh after Mireille Sauvé of The Wine Umbrella, now VP of Les Dames, attended one of Tayybeh's events.
"[Our] members have attended Tayybeh pop up dinner events throughout 2017," she said. "As an organization of established, influential women we can...assist another organization which serves to uplift women by providing life-changing opportunity."
Les Dames doesn’t have an enormous budget to work with, but that when someone brought up the idea of buying Tayybeh a much-needed freezer, the group used some of its funds to gift it to Elwan and her group.
Today, Tayybeh is paying some of that help forward. The upcoming event on March 22 for the Downtown Eastside Women's Centre is a volunteer, non-profit event to celebrate women's strength and resilience.
“Women becoming more self-determined through food," Dar Woon said. "Not only would they hone their cooking skills, they’re learning business operational skills."
Editor's Note: This article is part of a series on Syrian refugees in Canada produced in partnership with United Way of Lower Mainland. National Observer has full editorial control and responsibility to ensure stories meet its editorial standards.