June 3, 2016
As Syrian refugees resettle throughout the US, Canada, Europe, and the Middle East, they often struggle to preserve the intangible cultural heritage that ties them to their identities. Yearning for a taste of home, the Syrian diaspora accesses this heritage through reestablishing culinary traditions and recreating the tastes of home in kitchens throughout the world. The Hollings Center recently awarded a small grant to journalists Dalia Mortada and Lauren Bohn to explore the ways in which these resettled Syrians use cuisine to share their culture with their new communities. On June 3, 2016, the Center partnered with Culinary Backstreets to bring together journalists, members of the Syrian-American community, refugee aid workers, academics, and other practitioners in Washington, D.C. to hear about Dalia’s and Lauren’s reporting and share food cooked by a recently resettled Syrian chef.
The event highlighted the story of Mahmoud Al Hazaz, a Syrian resettled in Memphis, TN by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in December 2015. A native of Homs, Syria, Mahmoud moved to Lebanon at a young age to pursue a career in food. After the war in Lebanon in 2006, Mahmoud returned to his hometown and opened a restaurant, which he operated until he was driven from his home by the current conflict. Mahmoud and his family then moved to Jordan before being resettled in the US, where he currently is cooking out of his home and a gas station, and will soon be the head chef at a new restaurant in Memphis.
Through the generous support of Zaytinya restaurant from the ThinkFoodGroup, Mahmoud prepared a meal of hummus, muhammara, salad, lamb and chicken kebab. The meal served as the center of the conversation, highlighting Syrian cuisine and the ways in which Mahmoud is using his skills as a chef to connect with the Memphis community.
Several other speakers also shared insight on food as cultural heritage, both in Syria and in a broader cultural context. Ahmad Beetar, a Syrian entrepreneur, journalist, and translator who has been living in the Washington, D.C. area for about three years, elaborated on the ways in which he connects with his culture through food. Ahmad said, “We [Syrians] love being here in the US, we feel welcomed, and we feel like [it’s] home now, but still we lost everything because of the war; and food, I can say, is the only link between our personalities and our home…the moment when I try to cook something, it’s amazing, you feel like you start hearing the voice of your mother or sisters.”
Other speakers included Nadia Alawa, the founder and president of NuDay Syria, and Johanna Mendelson-Forman, Scholar in Residence at American University’s School of International Service. NuDay Syria is a non-profit organization focused on empowerment, which it achieves through efforts to provide stability and some sense of normalcy to Syrian mothers and children. Nadia discussed the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Syria and the ways in which aid organizations try to alleviate food crises, especially during Ramadan. Johanna, who teaches a course titled “Conflict Cuisine” at American University, explained how ethnic food is often viewed as “the living room of the homesick.” Johanna’s remarks provided context and comparative examples of the ways in which previous diaspora communities have recreated community and informed U.S. culture through cuisine.
Highlighting the ways in which Syrian refugees use food culture to access and share their cultural heritage is especially crucial now, when the discussion on resettling Syrian refugees in the US is driven more by fear than empathy. We invite you to watch the video of with remarks from our speakers or click through the photos of Mahmoud cooking at Zaytinya to learn more about the event.