Syrian refugee women in Canada move into job market, bringing cooking skills with them

March 9, 2018

By National Observer |

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.”

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