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Syrian Refugees Turn to Cooking to Make a Living

Rima spoke with Syria Deeply about her experience of launching a catering company in the Egyptian capital.

Written by Ahmad al-Dimashqi Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes

Some two million Syrian women are officially registered as refugees and living in neighboring countries. Each one has had to make difficult choices about how to survive after fleeing their war-torn country.

Many, especially those whose husbands or children have been killed or detained or who are fighting, have turned to jobs they would never have considered in their home country.

One of the biggest obstacles faced by many has been a lack a formal education or training to enter the local job market. Some have turned to the training workshops given to Syrian refugees to improve their skills. Others have simply launched their own businesses.

Syria Deeply spoke to one such woman, Rima. Originally from a well-off Damascus family, she fled to Egypt with her husband in May 2013 after fighting broke out in their hometown of Barzeh, a northwest suburb of the Syrian capital of Damascus.

Once they arrived in Cairo, they registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). They then began to receive an $80 monthly stipend, but this was not enough to pay their rent.

Rima spoke with Syria Deeply about her experience of launching a catering company in the Egyptian capital.

Syria Deeply: When did you think of becoming a cook?

Rima: Probably three months after arriving in Egypt. We quickly realized that there is no immediate solution to what’s happening in Syria and we started thinking of getting jobs, but who would hire two elderly people like us? We found that food and cooking was a good option. We worked on creating a network of clients and it was all based on word of mouth. Soon we had moved from home orders to catering for parties and women’s get-togethers. At these parties, we met new people from different social classes and they all loved the food. They too became our customers.

Syria Deeply: Did you do all the work yourselves?

Rima: Yes. I used to prepare the food two days in advance to save time, or I would work for days to get everything done. My husband would then deliver the food to the client’s place. About a month ago, I was feeling a little ill, so I asked my friends’ daughters to help. The three of them would come and help me if I had a large order, and they would do the washing-up or decorate the dishes.

Syria Deeply: Does your husband help with the cooking or does he only deliver the orders?

Rima: My husband helps and, in fact, he’s a food lover. We sometimes compete to see who can prepare a certain dish quicker. He might not be able to prepare kibbe or other complicated dishes, but he helps me grill or fry and package them. He also helps me with stirring the milk and preparing pastries. I have to admit that he’s better at making Syrian sweets and desserts than I am.

Syria Deeply: Did you have all the necessary materials to cater to such large parties?

Rima: In the beginning, my kitchen was simple. But when I started making a profit, I bought the necessary tools such as a meat grinder to make Syrian kibbe. Then I bought a large freezer to keep the food in, and large pots and plastic containers. The food looked like it had been prepared at one of the fanciest restaurants in town.

Some people helped me get the rest of the tools as my relationship with them progressed and we became friends. They would call to check up on me and my husband. For example, I was once exhausted and feeling dizzy and one of the ladies called to check up on us. When I told her how I was feeling, she was at my place within the hour with a doctor to make sure I was OK. She had also brought with her a vacuum cleaner and some vitamin tablets and supplements.

Syria Deeply: Do you make a considerable profit?

Rima: Yes, often I make several times the cost of the dish. Many of the clients give me more than I ask for because they like my work. Egyptians love Syrian cuisine. For example, if a dish costs me $50, I would usually make around $100 depending on how much work it took me to prepare that dish.

The other thing that helped me earn money was the fact that I sell pickled foodstuffs to Syrian shops here. That too generates income.

Syria Deeply: How much would you say is your monthly profit?

Rima: It all depends on the orders taken in a certain month. I don’t get paid at the end of the month like a normal employee. Thankfully, I have daily orders and many times I have to turn down orders. My daily income could range from $30 to $200, depending on my orders. My average monthly income is $1,000.

Syria Deeply: Do you think that’s a good amount of money considering the hard work you do?

Rima: I think it’s good and it’s a dependable source of income, especially in our old age and as we suffer from many illnesses. We save our money for a rainy day.

Syria Deeply: Do you ever think of returning to Syria or emigrating by boat?

Rima: Do we look like we have the strength to emigrate by boat? That’s for the young people who are looking to build a future for themselves at this time of uncertainty. It’s impossible for me even to consider it. As for Syria, how can I return? My money and my home have been taken by the regime forces. I’m in Egypt now, where I live happily. I have made a wonderful circle of friends among the people I have met here. Right now, all I think about is staying put and getting on with my work.

Syria Deeply: Did you think when you left Syria that you’d be here today, especially after you mentioned you came from a well-off family that had probably never taken part in such work?

Rima: When I fled to Egypt, I left with my husband and the clothes on our backs. We had some money to support ourselves, but we spent most of it on my operation after I had a stroke. My husband was so upset that he also had a stroke. When we both recovered, we started this business because life could easily throw surprises our way and we need to be prepared for it.

I don’t have anyone to lean on anymore. My family is scattered all over the world and everyone is busy with their own family and their own life. The same goes for my husband. We didn’t have children, so he’s always been my family and I’ve been his. Today, at the edge of 70, we are standing side by side. Our past may have faded and our future may be short, but it’s enough to know that we have stood by each other, especially with the war happening. We know that we took life on and were able to adapt to it regardless of what direction it took.

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