Syrian refugees escape horrors of war, bring taste of home to Hamilton

Not long ago, Manahel Al Shareef's family was pulling her husband from the rubble of their bombed-out home in Syria. Now, her family is in Hamilton — and she's part of a new catering business bringing Syrian food to the city.

3 women starting Karam Kitchen, a new catering business with Syrian food

Three Syrian refugee women have left their homeland in search of a better life - and are now starting a catering business in Hamilton. (Alison Witt)

Manahel Al Shareef and her family have lived through horrors most Canadians couldn't imagine.

She came to Hamilton as a refugee from Syria back in February, trying to escape the unrest that has enveloped the country that she still loves.

"We had to leave Syria because of the severe war. The regime was bombing the cities with kinds of weapons with no mercy. Buildings were put down to earth over civilians and children's heads," Shareef told CBC News, through a translator.

They had nothing in their houses yet, but they're making us a feast.- Brittani Farrington 

That's how her husband almost died. Four years ago their home was bombed. Faisal, her husband, was still inside. "We had to leave to Jordan so my husband can receive medical treatment… He made it out of the house ruins. We left after six months of that incident because of his bad condition," she said.

Warning: The video below is graphic and may disturb some viewers. It shows Manahel Al Shareef's husband Faisal being pulled from the rubble after their home was bombed. Faisal is now living in Hamilton with his wife and their children.

Faisal's head pokes through the rubble of his home

6 years ago
Duration 0:38
Some of Hamilton's Syrian refugees have endured terrible hardships.

"It was a close call every single second. It was a very harsh life, I can't even explain it."

But through those hardships has come new opportunity in Canada. Al Shareef wants the people in her new country to know a little about what it means to be Syrian — not war, but food.​ Along with two fellow refugee women, Dalal Al Zoubi and Rawa'a Aloliwi, she has helped launch Karam Kitchen — or simply, "The generous kitchen."

It's a local catering business that's just getting off the ground, but has already pulled in almost $6,500 to fund its capital costs through a Kickstarter campaign. They're operating out of the Kitchen Collective on King Street East, though there have only been free tastings so far.

Business co-founder Brittani Farrington met the three women through Hamilton's Eucharist Church the day they first came to the city, back in February.

"They were always inviting my husband and I over for these beautiful dinners," Farrington said. "It's the classic case of generosity. They had nothing in their houses yet, but they're making us a feast."

Getting a new business off the ground

The church wanted to throw a welcome event for the women and other refugees in July, and they said sure — on the condition they were allowed to cook for everyone.

The crowd loved the food, and so germinated the seed of an idea for a business between the three newcomers, plus Farrington and co-founder Kimberly Kralt.

Many Hamiltonians might not know Syrian food, but it wasn't a shock to any of the three newcomers that it still appealed to Canadian palates.

The three women, who are in their 30s and 40s, weren't surprised that Hamiltonians enjoyed their food. (J. Walton)

"We knew in advance that Syrian food tastes great. It is not surprising that Canadian people like it," said Al Zoubi, through Google Translate.

"We weren't surprised when you were happy trying the Syrian food, because we know very well that the Syrian food is the best, especially if we are cooking it," added Al Shareef, with a laugh.

Getting the business off the ground hasn't been without its challenges. Costs aside, there's a language barrier — one woman speaks conversational English, but the other two speak about as much English as Farrington does Arabic. They do plan on starting English classes in the fall.

The three women are also unsure about having their photos taken for use on social media, a trace of the cultural norms from their home country.

"It's a unique marketing challenge for sure," Farrington laughed.

'This business means a lot to us'

Faisal in his new garden in Hamilton, long from the rubble in his home in which he was found. (Manahel Al Shareef)

More than anything, the group is grateful for the new home they've been able to find in Canada. "Hamilton is a very beautiful city, the people here are so nice and peaceful and they welcomed us among them with a smile," Al Shareef said.

There are still fears, and thoughts about the family members they left behind.

"I have family in Syria and am worried about them constantly," Al Zoubi said. "I have a great hope and wish that the Government of Canada will someday take them here, we hope."

But in the meantime, this business helps them integrate, and feel like they are contributing, Al Shareef says.

"We Syrians are such a hard working people, we love to work and earn our own money and build ourselves even in the worst circumstances.

"This business means a lot to us."



Adam Carter


Adam Carter is a Newfoundlander who now calls Toronto home. You can follow him on Twitter @AdamCarterCBC or drop him an email at adam.carter@cbc.ca.


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