The flavoursome smell of the fresh-cooked vegetables and meat laden with coriander, sumac, and other mediterranean spices lures you into the basement of the United Church on Epworth Avenue in Nepean. Follow the thickening cloud of seasonings and you’ll find a group of Syrian women who have started new lives in Ottawa, cooking the food they love.
While working hard to make their best home cooking, they often joke, laugh, sing, and even dance. Their happiness is not just because of the taste of home but also because they have the chance to share it with others.
Yasmin Syria is one of a few catering businesses providing Syrian food to meet the growing demand in Ottawa as more Syrian refugees are settling in the city and more people from other ethnicities are introduced to the Syrian cuisine.
Ayda Alnoofoory, a Syrian mother of three, founded the business in September 2016 because she felt a need to do something for the Syrian women who are facing obstacles while trying to start a new life in Ottawa.
“I know that Syrian women cook tasty food. So, I suggested the idea of starting a cooking business to 14 Syrian women who were part of a summer camp in 2016. Eight women said they were ready to work.” Alnoofoory says. “The First United Church allowed us to use their kitchen, and we borrowed some money to buy ingredients when we started. Now we work in our kitchen and we have a registered small business.”
For refugees and immigrants, food is not only something they use to fuel themselves, but also an important part of their identity and culture. They conserve and share it with others to establish their identity in their new country.
On the menu, Yasmin Syria offers 16 main dishes and a variety of different kinds of soups, salads, and desserts. Everything is 100 per cent Syrian, according to Alnoofoory, who says that her team focuses on serving food with “a real Syrian taste.”
However, it is not only Syrians who are enjoying the authentic taste of their dishes.
“The Canadian customers liked our food because they tasted the uniqueness of its flavours,” Alnoofoory adds.
Karin Hill volunteers at Yasmin Syria as a business manager. She believes that one of the benefits of volunteering to help these Syrian women is that she gets to taste the Syrian food. “I enjoy all of it. I like the light spices. It’s not heavy and over powering,” Hill says.
AUDIO: Karin Hill talks about her role at Yasmin Syria.
The success of Yasmin Syria has not been matched by other entrepreneurs trying to make a business of cooking Syrian food. Abdul-rauf Salloum runs a catering business from home called Salloum Kitchen. He relies on his wife and his three young daughters’ help.
Unlike Yasmin Syria, Salloum doesn’t receive a lot of orders. While looking for another restaurant job, he’s been working as an Uber driver to make ends meet.
When he started working in 2016, Salloum participated in a half-monthly activity at the University of Ottawa called ‘taste around the world.’ “I was the only one who’s always selling all food.” Sallom says. “The sponsor of the activity asked for an expensive insurance. I couldn’t afford that, and that was it.”
The lack of finance is the biggest obstacle to Syrian refugees who are willing to contribute to the Canadian cuisine from making a go of it. Alnoofoory hasn’texpanded her business to a restaurant.. “It’s too risky, and we are not ready to take that risk yet,” she said.
Finding the ingredients to cook the Syrian dishes is not a challenge since there are many Middle Eastern grocery stores around the city. Ian Smiley, a member of Canadian Baptists of Ontario and Quebec, which helps refugees in Ottawa, says that he has settled eight Syrian families in Canada, and all of them were very surprised at how easy it was to find staples of Middle Eastern cuisine — ingredients like lamb meat, vine leaves, cassia bark and coriander — in Ottawa marketplaces.
“I love Syrian food,” Smiley says, “the characteristic that springs out to me the most is that not only is it delicious and satisfying, but it’s very healthy and good for you too.”
Syrian refugees in Ottawa didn’t give up their food because they need it to overcome the shock of being thousands of miles away from home. By holding onto it, they’re also contributed to Canada’s multi-ethnic menu.
In the kitchen of Yasmin Syria, two women carefully fold vine leaves stuffed with rice, tomato paste, and lamb meat. Meanwhile, Alnoofoory checks her notebook to make sure she doesn’t forget any ingredients on today’s shopping trip.
Alnoofoory started her business to make jobs for Syrian women and that’s paying off now. “As long we get engaged in life here in Canada,” she says, “we get more comfortable, make money and depend on ourselves.”