Lisa Ferguson is a writer and editor. She writes the annual Toronto’s Vital Signs Report and has contributed to Spacing and Boulevard magazines.
Through cuisine, Toronto’s Newcomer Kitchen fosters economic and social relationships for Syrian immigrants.
Practiced hands press layers of finely shredded phyllo pastry into baking sheets. Others follow with spoonfuls of ricotta cheese. Once baked, the knafeh Nabulsia will be drenched in orange blossom syrup and sprinkled with pistachio. “It’s always good to know how to cook something traditional,” says Majda Khalil, one of the bakers and a Syrian refugee. “It reminds you of home.”
The dessert prepped, six women crowd around a map, showing each other where home was before war ravaged Syria.
Len Senater is used to inviting strangers into his kitchen. It’s the business model of The Depanneur, Senater’s eatery and community hub housed in an old convenience store just west of Toronto’s downtown. For five years he’s been inviting strangers to come, make their favorite food, and sell it to the community.
So when the chef heard that newly arrived government-sponsored Syrian refugees were being housed in hotels for weeks with nowhere to cook, he thought, “Why don’t they just come and use my kitchen?”
On a cold mid-April morning, nearly a dozen excited women, children tagging along, came to share a kitchen and communal meal. Soon, what started as a kind gesture—offering mothers a place to cook a meal for their families—turned into an economic opportunity embraced by a community eager to help the refugees settle into their new Toronto home.
Newcomers’ opportunities may be limited at first. “They have many skills but they can’t use [them] in this community,” says Esmaeel Abou Fakher, who along with his wife, Rahaf Alakbani, was a key liaison between The Depanneur and the refugee community. Once families were relocated and the women had their own kitchens, they no longer needed Senater’s. But they were interested in how they could make a little extra money.
Since the Depanneur was already hosting weekly “drop-in dinners”—a sort of open mic night for enterprising cooks—it wasn’t a stretch to make Newcomer Kitchen another regular event—this time, one that could provide some income for refugee women. Each Tuesday, 50 meals go up for grabs, for pickup or delivery Thursday evening. The $20, three-course feasts sell out within a few hours.
The women divide the profits that are left over after covering costs. It usually works out to about $14-$18 per hour. Today’s six cooks will take home almost $100 each for several hours’ work.
But there is more going on here than making a few bucks. Newcomer Kitchen also provides space for emotional support. “The rhythm of cooking allows the women to talk about all sorts of things they need to talk about,” says The Depanneur’s Cara Benjamin-Pace. A few days earlier, one woman told an interpreter she was having trouble concentrating after learning that more of her family members had been bombed.
The women find comfort in coming here, 37-year-old Khalil says through an interpreter. For Syrian women, cooking together is the experience of cooking. Weddings and other occasions for communal feasts meant “women would always be gathered,” Khalil says. “Being here brings back that feeling, because we feel we are one hand working together.”
In Newcomer Kitchen, the common bond of a cuisine transcends politics, religion, geography, history, and class. On any Thursday, university-educated, Damascene professionals and illiterate, rural farmers might cook side by side.
But for all of Newcomer Kitchen’s success, the model was unsustainable. So Senater launched a $25,000 crowdfunding campaign to offset the volunteer and in-kind support the project has relied on. The next step is establishing Newcomer Kitchen as a stand-alone nonprofit, with the women running social enterprises at The Depanneur and other venues.
The project is already oversubscribed. Over 50 women participate, but since The Depanneur’s two-stove kitchen can only fit six to eight at a time, each woman is only able to come about once a month. Many more, including privately sponsored refugees, want to.
“The idea is much bigger than my little kitchen,” says Senater. The Butler’s Pantry owner Atique Azad, Senater’s friend and mentor, demonstrated as much when he hosted Newcomer Kitchen a few times in the early days of the project. There are plans for the nonprofit to develop a “playbook” to inspire other restaurants to open their kitchens.
“This idea could work with any newcomer community,” Senater says, “in any restaurant kitchen that’s willing, in any city in the world.” Food’s accessibility and relatability make it one of the easiest cultural bridges to cross.
Besides expanding the venture across the city, Senater is also exploring what can grow out of this first seed. After developing a team’s skills through small weekend brunch sittings, he hopes to launch a pop-up restaurant that might one day become a permanent fixture.
Newcomer Kitchen’s end goal is not to produce a bunch of line cooks, though. The women have other skills, other careers—one, for example, has a Ph.D. in math. Each woman will decide how she wants to build on her Newcomer Kitchen experience.
Regardless of their choices, Senater believes the most significant impact of Newcomer Kitchen, as an early landing pad in their new home, is the transformation in the women’s sense of what they can achieve by leveraging their skills and talent. Through their own culture and cuisine, the women are launching themselves economically. One of them, Rashdia Al Masry, tells me, “Definitely, cooking is in my plans.”