B.C. volunteer connects Syrian women refugees through love of homeland’s cuisine

January 4, 2017

By Wendy Steuck, Globe and Mail |

When Syrian refugees began arriving in Vancouver in early 2016, Nihal Elwan wanted to help.

Born in Cairo, Ms. Elwan speaks English, French and Arabic and has worked for government and non-governmental organizations in the Middle East for more than a decade on issues including domestic violence and child marriage.

So she was particularly attuned to challenges facing women refugees, including language and cultural barriers that can make it more difficult for women to look for work or make new friends.

But she also knew many newly arrived refugee women were superb cooks, steeped in the intricacies of Syrian cuisine and accustomed to cooking for large numbers of people at family or community gatherings.

That became the seed for a fledgling food venture that is now spreading its wings. Ms. Elwan arranged startup funding of $500 through the Vancouver Foundation’s Neighbourhood Small Grants program. Ms. Elwan does not receive any compensation and is helping the group as a volunteer.

What is ‘Tayybeh: A Celebration of Syrian Cuisine’ – and what does Tayybeh mean?

Tayybeh is a food company run by recently arrived Syrian women refugees. To date, it has done a “pop-up” dinner and several catering events. Any proceeds go to chefs, ingredients and transportation for future events.

In Arabic, Tayybeh is the feminine form for ‘kind,’ and in the Levantine dialect, it means “delicious.”

How did Tayybeh come about?

I came to know some Syrian refugees through private sponsorship groups and local agencies when I volunteered to help with translating and other support for new arrivals. I reached out to Immigrant Services Society of B.C. to find women who might be interested in potentially earning some income through a food venture and who were known for their culinary abilities.

When I first spoke to them over the phone to see if they were interested in the initiative, I had no idea we would become such close friends.

We have about five women who are currently involved and others are interested in joining.

What was your first event?

Through friends, I was able to arrange access to the kitchen and dining areas of Tamam, a Palestinian restaurant in Vancouver, on a day it was closed.

We offered 70 tickets at $25 each for a multicourse meal [in October, 2016].

We created an event on Facebook and did absolutely no advertising, and all the tickets sold out in less than 12 hours. The support blew our mind and was immensely humbling for Tayybeh and the chefs.

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