From Aleppo to Quebec City: Syrian refugees' kitchen co-op makes a home in provincial capital

Three years ago, Fatima Milaji couldn't speak a word of French. Now she chats easily with customers, thanks in part to a French tutor who spends time in the kitchen while Milaji and other Syrian women who came to Quebec as refugees cook.

Women at Aliments Ensemble cook up Syrian treats, learning French and job skills while they're at it

Fatima Milaji works part-time for Aliments Ensemble, a non-profit agency that provides refugees a steady income, French courses and tools to navigate Quebec bureaucracy. (Marika Wheeler/CBC)

Fatima Milaji carefully stuffs spinach and feta into a small roll of pastry dough, before folding it into a crescent.

The result — samboussak — is just one of the Syrian delicacies the non-profit Aliments Ensemble offers at its stall in Quebec City's new farmers' market, Le Grand Marché.

Aliments Ensemble is about to celebrate its third anniversary — a crucial year which could also mark a new beginning for the Syrian women who run the kitchen.

Milaji, who has been on board since close to the beginning, couldn't speak a word of French when she arrived in Quebec nearly four years ago. French immersion classes at the local CEGEP weren't enough to tempt her to get out of the house.

"I stayed home and cooked."

Now, Milaji chats easily with customers. She's made new friends, thanks in part to a French tutor who spends time in the kitchen, while Milaji and other Syrian women cook.

The founder of the non-profit organization, Nour Sayem, said it was essential the project didn't become a cocoon, where women would continue speaking Arabic.

"If you cannot talk, you cannot communicate. You will never be integrated," Sayem said.

'From war to love'

Sayem moved to Quebec from Syria in 1967, at the age of 15. She earned a PhD in food science and technology — expertise that she wanted to put to good use when refugees from her native country started arriving in December 2015.

Sayem wanted to help women become independent and find jobs.

"Aliments Ensemble is not just a kitchen to make biscuits," she said, calling it "social action."

Nour Sayem, the founder of Aliments Ensemble, hopes the organization will soon find a permanent home for its third year in business. (Marika Wheeler/CBC)

After helping families finalize their refugee claims, assisting them in bringing family members stuck in Lebanon or Turkey,  and everything in between, Sayem said she now knows "every single rule in the book" when it comes to Quebec's immigration rules.

More than 17,000 people have left war-town Syria since 2015 to rebuild their lives in Quebec.

Despite her Syrian background, Sayem had to persevere to gain the women's trust and convince them she didn't have an ulterior motive for volunteering all her time.

"They come from war," she said. "They didn't [trust] anybody."

She often heard people say she was "either foolish or corrupted."

"Fom war to love, there is a bridge," Sayem said. "I think they accept it now."

Aliments Ensemble rents kitchen space at the Quebec Hotel and Tourism Institute, next door to the Grand Marché, where they sell Syrian staples like samboussak, a pastry stuffed with spinach and feta. (Marika Wheeler/CBC)

New chapter

Sayem measures Aliments Ensemble's success by the number of women who have gone on to find work: 24 participants now have jobs cooking in cafeterias or kitchens outside the organization. 

The next step is to find a permanent location for the agency, which has had to move seven times since if first started up.

"We are refugees from kitchen to kitchen," Sayem said, laughing.

Michèle Couture, left, gives French lessons to the women while they cook in the kitchen at the Institut de tourisme et d'hôtellerie du Québec, where Micaël Papillon, right, is a guidance counsellor. (Marika Wheeler/CBC)

For now, the women are working out of a kitchen at Quebec's Tourism and Hotel Institute (ITHQ), next door to the market.

Guidance counsellor Micaël Papillon says the ITHQ is a perfect match for Aliments Ensemble because he can help provide expertise in marketing and bookkeeping, for example.

But Papillon also sees the partnership as a learning tool for his students.

"I think there is no better way to discover a culture than through food," he said.

Michèlle Couture, the women's French tutor, also sees her involvement as a two-way street.

"It's a source of pride for them to make something that Quebecers appreciate. And for me, to know the journey they had to go through — the obstacles they had to overcome after leaving Aleppo — I have a lot of respect for that."

'Most people accept immigrants'

Mohamed Boujemaa immigrated to Quebec eight months ago from Tunisia. His French skills qualified him for a full-time job selling Aliments Ensemble's products. 

Boujemma said the rhetoric and inflammatory debate around immigration may rage on online, but the face-to-face meetings he has at the market are friendly.

Mohamed Boujemaa, a recent arrival from Tunisia and the public face of Aliments Ensemble, said the organization has built up a steady clientele at the Grand Marché. (Marika Wheeler/CBC)

"Most people accept immigrants, are smiling and want to learn about this new culture."

Boujemma said Sayem's mission has allowed that cultural exchange to take place and has empowered Muslim women, who often weren't the main breadwinners in the countries they left behind.

Taking part in mainstream society in places like the Grand Marché is the best path to tackling the Islamophobia that exists Quebec, he said.

"It's important, especially for Muslims, to open up and share their culture to change those stereotypes."

Sayem hopes the women will be soon be able to bridge those gaps on their own.

She is planning a big party in March to mark the third anniversary of their adventure.

After that, she hopes the women will be able to take over the administration, ideally in a new, permanent location.

Sayem envisions a small boutique where women could cook, sell their products and perhaps add a few tables to serve their customers.

"Something we can call our home — that is ours."


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