Refugees find solace in a national project that tells the stories of Syrians through food

Local caterers Kan Ya Makan Atayeb Zaman offer an authentic taste of Syrian cuisine.

click to enlarge Refugees find solace in a national project that tells the stories of Syrians through food
Photo: Brittany Thornton
Growing up, writer Dalia Mortada and her mother would sit for hours by a fax machine, waiting for her grandmother’s recipes to cross the Atlantic Ocean and materialize in their Virginia home.

“Food has always been a huge part of my life,” says Mortada, who now lives in Istanbul, Turkey. “My household was very Syrian in large part because our kitchen was.”

Though she never lived in Damascus, where her family is originally from, Mortada nurtured a deep connection with her culture through its cuisine — flavors and spices that would later inspire a renewed lens on how to report on the Syrian refugee crisis. 

Mortada traveled to Istanbul in 2011 with the intention of continuing on to Damascus, but her plans were put on hold due to protests that had ignited in Syria during the Arab Spring and the violent government reactions that followed. In mid-2012, Turkey saw an influx of more than 20,000 Syrians coming into the country every month because of the resulting civil war, according to the Transatlantic Council on Migration. As the refugee population grew, Mortada joined other journalists in covering their harrowing tales. But when she received a grant to report on the Middle East beyond stories of conflict, she turned to her culinary heritage. 

“What we were seeing on the news, TV and almost every major outlet was the mass migration of people. People getting into boats out of desperation to find a more stable life,” Mortada says. “Those stories are important, there were many talented journalist telling them, but they were not the complete picture of who Syrians are.” 

In 2015, Mortada launched a project called Savoring Syria to document the diaspora of her people through the common language of food. Mortada, operating as a one-woman team, uses this platform to share recipes and the food-related experiences of those displaced by the war. 

First a solely digital platform, the demand for a physical presence became clear. A rush of emails following a piece Mortada had published in The New York Times were sent from people looking to connect with the Syrian populations in their communities. With the help of local partners, Savoring Syria answered this call by holding dinners in various cities across the world — one of which was held in late April at the First Unitarian Church in Cincinnati.

The dinner was prepared by Ibtissam Masto, a refugee from Jisr ash-Shugur, a district in the Idlib province of Syria. Now resettled in Norwood with her husband and six children, Masto’s arrival in the U.S. first began after fleeing to Beirut, Lebanon — a journey which took her family through dark mountains, squeezed them into a packed bus for 20 hours and carried the threat of arrest and possible death the entire way. Once in Beirut, Masto enrolled in a cooking program where she learned entrepreneurial skills and fostered her love of cooking. The experience would lead her to work in the UN Refugee Agency’s cafeteria in Lebanon, where she would meet Mortada during one of her lunch shifts.  

The pair stayed in touch during Masto’s resettlement in June of last year. “I knew (Masto’s) skill set, I knew what she was trying to do, so I was like ‘OK, well I’m coming to follow up on my reporting with you but let’s do a dinner,’ ” Mortada says. 

More than 100 Cincinnatians turned out for the dinner to devour dishes like kibbeh maftouha, a recipe with origins in Aleppo. Masto’s version is made with a meat substitute stuffed with peppers, eggplant, nuts and pomegranate molasses — one of several small-portion, handmade dishes featured on the menu at Kan Ya Makan Atayeb Zaman’s, a catering company she and business partner Basma Akbik of Symmes Township operate out of Masto’s kitchen. 

With these dinners, journalist Mortada hopes to paint a more nuanced picture of the conditions of the Syrian people. In part, this would be to address the feeling of helplessness she’s seen in those physically removed from the conflict. 

“That sense of hopelessness comes from distance, feeling so far from that experience,” she says. “And I thought what better way than to focus on experiences that surround food. Because those experiences and voices could talk to someone anywhere in the world and you can still feel that same emotional pull when you read or hear someone describing their grandma’s chocolate cake or their experiences around the dining table.” 

This dinner series doesn’t just serve to alleviate a sense of separation, but also to address misconceptions of the Syrian community that flourished during the 2016 presidential election and have only managed to intensify. Mortada hopes these events will attract tolerant people who are open to having a positive experience with the Syrians in their community — and from there, create a chain reaction as they’re able to convince those who may be more closed off to partake in a similar experience.

It’s a goal shared by the team at Kan Ya Makan Atayeb Zaman.

“We wanted to change the image of the Syrian people,” Akbik says of their catering company’s participation in the Cincinnati dinner. “We wanted to show how civilized the people are, how productive they are, how educated they are, how ambitious they are. This means a lot to us. Ibtissam came here to show the beauty of Syria through her food. This is how she can provide the good image.” 

For Masto, Cincinnati is her new home. The green of the Queen City’s native trees and the rushing water of the Ohio River remind her of Jisr ash-Shugur; everywhere she goes, she is reminded of her hometown.

“We came here and we fell in love with Cincinnati and its people and how kind they are and giving and we want them to love us back,” says Masto, as translated by Akbik. “Our food is one of the faces that we can show. If they’ve kicked us out of our country, they can’t kick the country out of us. So we are carrying this food to show the people how loving we are, how giving we are, how compassionate we are. That we are a good people, we carry good hearts.”


For more information about SAVORING SYRIA or KAN YA MAKAN ATAYEB ZAMAN, visit savoringsyria.com or atayebzaman.com.

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