In Bagdad, Iraqi Amer Mohsen used to work as a policeman in the morning and as a cook in the afternoon. Iraqi salad, tabbouleh, barbeque chicken, were his favourite dishes. But when militias targeted his house, he decided to leave the country for good.
In Damascus, Syrian Abdell Baset, pictured above, specialised in wedding catering. When war broke and he was called up to the army, he refused. “I didn’t want to take part in that stupid war”, he explains.
They took the usual migration route to Europe, through Turkey, a boat to the Greek islands, and over to the Balkans.
Now, in Brussels, they have been given access to kitchens in local restaurants for a few days, allowing them to showcase their talents while giving people the chance to discover new culinary traditions.
After being forced to flee war and become refugees, the chefs were able to once again enjoy their passion of cooking.
The Refugee Food Festival took place in more than fifty restaurants in 13 European cities.
“The event is a good opportunity for people to know more about where we come from, our culture, our habits, our language,” Mr Baset said.
The ultimate objective is to help refugee chefs to find a job, to alter society’s view towards migrants and to enjoy food from other countries.
“Food is universal, it is something that we can all share no matter our culture, civilisation or social class. At the same time it is also something quite intimate, which brings back the memories of our mothers and grandmothers”, Marine Mandrila said, the co-founder of Food Sweet Food and organiser of the festival.
The first edition, in which eleven restaurants hosted eight refugee chefs over five days, took place last year in Paris to mark World Refugee Day.
melissarfleming</a> for coming to taste Afoussatou Food in <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/paris?src=hash">#paris</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/RefugeeFoodFest">RefugeeFoodFest 😋
Paris</a> <a href="https://t.co/AOpMLk9KDe">pic.twitter.com/AOpMLk9KDe</a></p>— RefugeeFoodFestival (RefugeeFoodFest) June 18, 2017
“We wanted to support the welcoming of refugees in France. To face off the negative messages that refugees get when they arrive in Europe”, Mandrila said.
It was a success, so they decided to take it to the European level this year.
They created a toolkit for anyone to organise a local festival. In Brussels, it was Raphael Beaumond who decided to step in. He had previous experience with refugees as a volunteer in the Jordanian refugee camp of Zaatari.
“We planned to have restaurants of different price ranges and to show different types of cuisines. But all the restaurants share a social philosophy”, says at Henri, where Mohsen is preparing an Iraqi-based recipe to which the local chef is giving a Belgian taste.
To make the selection of professional chefs, they reached out to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
“Helping refugees means much more that just giving them a refugee card. When they leave their countries because of prosecution or war, they have nothing left. So they need to restart their lives over again. They need a job, to have their family around, to learn new languages, to be able to integrate into the society in the long term”, explained Vanessa Saenen, press officer at UNHCR-Brussels.
Mohsen dreams of opening a restaurant mixing ingredients from the Middle East and Europe, while he waits for his wife, Evan, and his daughters, Aya and Dinahe, to arrive.
Baset wants to appear on the Flemish TV4 show Komen eten, where contestants compete against each other by hosting a dinner party. In order to gain a place, he is taking an intensive course in Flemish. “I will apply again and again until I get it”, he said.
Alejandro Vivancos, Brussels