How Food Brought an Unlikely Group of Syrian Refugees Together

How Food Brought an Unlikely Group of Syrian Refugees Together

How Food Brought an Unlikely Group of Syrian Refugees Together

Stuck in Greece, families found comfort in culinary rituals.


As I weaved through the alleys of Ritsona, a refugee camp set up on an abandoned Greek Air Force base on a mountain north of Athens, I let my nose guide me. The air was filled with the scent of roasting meat. Smoke wafted through the rows of white, single-room container homes. At last I reached the source: a makeshift grill pit at the end of an alley, surrounded by men squatting to tend the fire.

“We’re making shish taouk,” explained the Syrian man I came to know as Abu Shadi. “Or at least our version of it.” (In Syria, as in much of the Middle East, people go by a moniker beginning with “Abu” or “Umm”—“father of” and “mother of,” respectively—followed by the name of their first-born son or son-to-be. Most of the people in this story will be referred to by those monikers.)

Shish taouk, a popular Levantine dish of cubed chicken marinated in yogurt, garlic, lemon, and an assortment of spices that differs depending on the region, is usually skewered like a kebab and grilled over an open flame. “We don’t have skewers or all the spices we need for it, but we make do,” Abu Shadi said. They didn’t have a grill, tongs, or spatulas, either, so they used a fork or darted their bare hands into the flames to flip the chicken over, quickly dropping each piece onto a flat grill grate raised on bricks.

Abu Shadi and his wife, Umm Shadi, lived on the outskirts of Damascus until 2012, when the fighting forced them out; they joined 6 million other Syrians who’d been internally displaced by the civil war. They eventually made it to Abu Shadi’s home village of Quneitra, near the Israeli border in Syria’s southwest, before finally fleeing Syria altogether with their children in 2016. It took 45 days to cross Syria by land; the family walked through the desert and spent thousands of dollars on smugglers to get them to Turkey and, eventually, to Greece. “This little one,” Abu Shadi said, pointing to his feisty toddler, Jana, who has her father’s olive skin and her mother’s ear-to-ear smile, “didn’t cry a peep the whole way.” By March of 2016, they’d joined the 5 million Syrians—a quarter of the population—who were now living outside Syria’s borders.

Abu Shadi rattled off the cities of origin for the others seated around the plastic dining table: Abu and Umm Ibrahim from Idlib in the northwest, near the Turkish border; Abu and Umm Farouk from Latakia, a coastal province. From a Kurdish family in the region of Al Hasakah, on the northeast border with Iraq, came Alan Mohammad, who uses a wheelchair due to muscular dystrophy; Salah and Linda hailed from a Kurdish town in Aleppo province. There were also Abu and Umm Raed, from Daraa, the city known for sparking the revolution, and a group of single men in their teens and early 20s from a Palestinian-refugee camp in Damascus.

These families would never have crossed paths in Syria. It wasn’t just geography that separated them, but also their educational, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Generally speaking, Kurds and Arabs wouldn’t share a meal back home. But as the refugees gathered around the dining table at Ritsona, passing platters of shish taouk and fatteh—a sort of casserole of fried pita bread topped with chickpeas and a garlic-tahini-yogurt sauce—a familial bond grew between them. Abu Farouk tore pieces of chicken and fed them to Alan, whose own fingers were stiff from dystrophy and the November cold. “In Syria, most people would treat each other with prejudice,” Abu Shadi admitted. “Here, we’re family.”

The residents of Ritsona had arrived in Greece eight months earlier, expecting the stopover to be a minor one on their journeys farther north. But they crossed the Aegean Sea from Turkey in March 2016, just as Europe sealed its borders. What many anticipated would be a one-week detour stretched on into a months-long nightmare. Like tens of thousands of others who’d crossed the Aegean at that time, they were stranded in Greece, waiting for the United Nations resettlement program to send them on to other parts of Europe.

At first, the families who lived around the alley where I interviewed them had no interest in meeting one another, recalled Umm Ibrahim, the matriarch of the group: “We were too busy grieving our bad luck.” They lived in tarp tents for more than seven months and survived Greece’s scorching summer heat without electricity or plumbing.

But then Umm Farouk, who was pregnant, developed a severe craving for Syrian warak enab: grape leaves stuffed with spiced meat and rice, simmered in a lamb broth with lemon and garlic. Umm Ibrahim and Umm Shadi were also pregnant, and the three women bonded. “It was like, ‘Where on earth were we going to get those?’” Umm Ibrahim laughed, recalling her friend’s pregnancy-induced hankering for one of the more labor-intensive dishes in Syrian cuisine. But the women teamed up and managed to make some, a real gesture of love.

“We’ve become like siblings,” Umm Farouk declared, blinking back tears as she peeled cucumbers for the next meal. “I haven’t seen my own flesh-and-blood siblings for four years, and I rarely hear their voices. But if I go more than two or three days without seeing Linda or Umm Ibrahim, I feel like something is missing.”

It’s difficult to imagine these families becoming so close in the absence of a culinary connection. Their section of the camp is now set up to prepare and share meals together, with two makeshift kitchens built at the back of the alley. Each cooking space has two or three single-burners, at least one of which is almost always occupied by a pot with boiling chickpeas. The families pooled their money to buy a blender and a panini maker.

I like to call the area the haara, a term in colloquial Syrian Arabic that refers to a tight-knit neighborhood street. In Syria, the families in a haara are often related, or treat one another like close relatives if they’re not. Despite the odd patchwork of families that made up Ritsona’s haara, that’s exactly how they interacted. They physically demarcated their section by throwing a tarp over it—“to keep the rain and dust out,” Abu Ibrahim explained. Stray balloons had floated to the top, remnants of Linda and Salah’s wedding anniversary.

Witnessing life in Ritsona’s haara was like taking a magnifying glass to the new global Syrian diaspora. Until the war ripped apart tightly woven social circles and scattered their members across the world, families and neighbors stuck together, often living in the same neighborhood for generations. The residents of Ritsona were able to cobble together a semblance of the communities they’d known back home. But once they were settled in new countries across Europe, they would be too far apart to re-create daily rituals like the sobhiyya, the cup of thick Turkish coffee shared each morning, along with the latest gossip, among neighboring housewives after their husbands were sent off to work and the kids to school.

Even the technicalities of cooking are changing. Men traveling alone get advice on how to make certain dishes from their moms, wives, or sisters through calls and voice notes over WhatsApp, the free Internet-based messaging service. Some ingredients are too expensive or can’t be found at all. For some, packets of instant coffee replace cardamom-spiced grounds. For most, lamb or beef in Europe is a luxury—and besides, as Abu Ibrahim noted, “the meat is different, rubbery”—so they make do with chicken instead.

At Ritsona, about two to three times a week, the camp “café,” Café Rits, distributes ingredients: seasonal fruits and vegetables, oil, eggs, raw chicken, tea. Café Rits started out as an effort to feed families hot, healthy meals. “But I quickly realized that most people really just wanted to make their own food,” said Carolynn Rockafellow, an American former investment banker who founded the café. For specialty ingredients, a couple of men from the haara occasionally make the trip into Athens to stock up on spices like zaatar, a tangy mix that includes dried thyme, sumac, and sesame seeds. “It’s not just the food and its taste that we miss,” Abu Ibrahim explained. “It’s the ritual around each meal—the people you share it with, the occasion, the ambience.” A day grilling is best spent in nature, Abu Shadi added, and fatteh should be enjoyed with relatives for Friday brunch.

Since we met, almost all of the families from the haara have been resettled. Alan and his family, who now live in Germany, were the first to go. “It’s like old wounds are being ripped open again,” Alan’s mother said, crying, as the other families gathered to bid them goodbye. Umm and Abu Ibrahim are still waiting to move to Ireland, although they now live with their four kids in an apartment in a town close to Ritsona.

After years of violence and years spent in limbo, the families are glad to start new, stable lives. The kids are finally in school; they’re learning French, German, Swedish, English. But some changes aren’t as welcome. “Usually, in Syria, you make three or four main dishes, because you always eat in large gatherings and there’s plenty to share,” said Umm Ibrahim. Between her husband and four kids, there aren’t enough people to feed. With her extended family still in Syria and her friends far away, her sobhiyya is, at best, shared virtually.

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