Nfld. & Labrador

2 Syrian families, 2 different Newfoundland coasts, 1 love of food

One one side of the island, Maysaa Al-Omar opened a Syrian restaurant in Corner Brook and was sold out almost immediately. On the other, in St. John's, Safaa Thome is thriving at the Farmers' Market.

Syrian food delights customers in Corner Brook and St. John's

Maysaa Al-Omar smiles when she talks about cooking dishes for her friends and family. (Colleen Connors/CBC)

Maysaa Al-Omar swishes parsley, bulgur, olive oil and lemon juice in a big glass bowl on her kitchen table, preparing tabbouleh for her three children: Samaher, Mohammad and Walleed.

"My children, my family love kabsa, which is rice with chicken, tabbouleh and hummus," she said.

Al-Omar, along with her husband and children, fled Syria over three years ago. They relocated to Lebanon as refugees and landed in Corner Brook on Nov. 15, 2016. 

Taste of Home

They left a lot of their life behind, but Al-Omar continued to cook dishes from home. 

"The cooking is my favourite. I don't know why, but I love to cook. I'm feeling very happy when I cook," she said.

Jasmine Syrian Food opened in Corner Brook on Nov. 3 in the lobby of a Main Street office building. (Colleen Connors/CBC)

Al-Omar was selling falafel and hummus at the local farmer's market but thought it was time to go bigger.

She came across a takeout-style space in the lobby of an office building on Main Street and knew she'd found the right place.

Jasmine Syrian Food opened Nov. 3 and was a huge success.

Ran out of food

"It was extremely busy. Everyone was run off their feet," said Conor Curtis, who helped the family settle in Corner Brook when they first arrived, along with a team from the town's .refugee support group.

Al-Omar was so busy on opening day, she ran out of food and spent the night cooking and preparing for the next day.

Al-Omar prepares lunch for a long line of waiting customers. (Colleen Connors/CBC)

"Everybody I've talked to have loved the food, even if they have never tried it before," Curtis said. "If they have tried it before, they are saying it's some of the best they ever had."

The next day, there was a lineup of people out the front door, waiting for her to open.

Making friends with shawarma

For Safaa Thome, who landed in St. John's with her husband and young children in early 2016, cooking was a way to extend memories of home to new friends.

Recipes stood in for words when the native Arabic speaker was first learning English.

Safaa Thome serves Syrian dishes in her new Farmers' Market kitchen. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

Shawarma and samosas cemented those friendships, and turned neighbours into diehard fans of Thome's cooking. They eventually convinced Thome to take a gamble on her skills and open a stall at the St. John's Farmers' Market in late September. 

"They said, 'People will know your name!" she explained, smiling shyly. "They said it's good to start in the Farmers' Market."

"After that, maybe we'll get a restaurant."

Safaa Thome's home cooking was so good, her friends convinced her to start sharing it with the rest of St. John's. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

On a blustery Wednesday afternoon, one customer picks up her usual order, laughing that she stops by the market every week just to eat at Safaa's Kitchen. Others pass by, eyeing some of the dishes with a mix of apprehension and curiosity. 

"Canadians don't know it," Thome grins, pointing to her tray of grape leaves, steamed and rolled with savoury rice, lemon and meat tucked inside. 

One customer circles around the stall, making a beeline for the baklava, which Thome had to learn to bake from scratch. 

"In Syria, we just buy that. We don't make everything by hand," she said.

Thome says she's only convinced a few customers to try her grape leaves. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

Eventually, like Al-Omar, Thome plans to give her market stall a permanent home, where she'll put her husband to work in the kitchen. He watches proudly, holding their newborn, while she serves up sauces and salads, all recipes she learned from her mother shortly after she got engaged.

But for all her love of food — and sharing it — Thome's restaurant dream isn't the only thing on her plate. 

One day soon, she says, she hopes to go to medical school and become a nurse. 

"Everything's going up, up, up," she said.

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