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The Syrian Chefs

Eye Cinema Premiere Elevator

Chefs Mazen Ayaso, Alaa Sy and Ramez al Junaidy

The theme of ‘spaces for eating’ brings into question not only given spaces where food is served and consumed but how each of us actively creates distinct environments to prepare, cook and consume our daily meals - whether through the choice of where we place a table in our home, or by engineering social situations so that we rarely eat alone. The choices we make of where and how we eat not merely reflects but also constructs our individual identity, marking out a sense of security, habit and home.  

A question of home and security in our daily eating habits takes on an added resonance if viewed through the prism of the contemporary refugee crisis. In August 2016, Angela Merkel opened Germany’s borders to all Syrian refugees and negated the current EU Law that stated a refugee must claim asylum in the first European country they arrive in. Relieving pressure on Turkey and Austria the move by the German Chancellor enabled over 1.1 million asylum seekers to travel into Germany by the end of 2016. The influx caused immense strain on administration and accommodation services as well as a knock on effect in surrounding EU countries. With individuals traveling beyond Germany, the pressure led to an eventual backtrack in the German Chancellors open border policy. In the Netherlands the number of Syrian nationals registered with Dutch local authorities rose from a previous 15,000 in 2014 to 64,000 by the end of September 2016. The majority of new arrivals to the Netherlands are housed in temporary accommodation in Amsterdam and Utrecht. The accommodation available has ranged from school gyms to community halls and disused prisons. Arriving with little other than a rucksack full of essentials, those staying in the temporary accommodation find innovative ways and means to forge a sense of comfort and make-shift home.1 

The Syrian Chefs, a project by Amsterdam local Jurriaan Momberg demonstrates an important attempt to connect with the new arrivals and aid in their need to forge a sense of home within the make-shift accommodation. Jurriaan tells the story behind the project in a very matter of fact and slightly bemused account. Seeing a post on facebook by a group of Syrian men that asked for a local chef to help them, Jurriaan thought why not? He replied immediately and ended up driving to the processing centre where they were currently staying. Arriving at the centre he was greeted by Ramez al Junaidy, Youssef Abd, Alaa Sy and Mazen Ayasosix each of whom simply wanted to be able to cook.

Housed in a disused women’s prison the men were provided with catered meals. Yet, the institutional cuisine was foreign and unfamiliar. As the prison kitchen was no longer operational, the men took the initiative to cook outside under makeshift shelters with gas burners. They wanted Jurriaan’s help to take them to a market or supermarket where they could buy fresh ingredients and familiar foods that tasted of home. Juriaan took the men to a local Turkish supermarket, with little money between them he bought them a gift of a trolley full of fresh ingredients. Returning to the centre the men cooked Jurriaan a feast of colour, spice and the familiar tastes of their homelands, momentarily forging a space for eating within the processing centre that was uniquely theirs – smelling and tasting of home.  

Taken by their enthusiasm for the ingredients they held in their hands and the visible emotion cooking brought with it, Jurriaan continued to visit the men, taking on the repairs of the prison kitchen and restoring it to working order. Supported by the Salvation Army, Jurriaan shared his experience of the men’s cooking by setting up a catering service with the group.


Alaa Sy in the kitchen


Youssef Abd preparing fattoush

Ramez, Youssef, Alaa, Mazen and Jurriaan cooked meals for community events, schools and local clubs. The reputation of the project quickly grew and the men found themselves cooking for organisations including Amnesty International, Free Press Unlimited, Amsterdam’s EYE Filmmuseum, and local businesses including Springhouse, and This, that & The Other. The appeal of the project centred upon the fact that it was not just good food that those engaging with The Syrian Chefs received, it was also an opportunity to connect to the new influx of city residents and learn their stories, engaging with the refugee crisis by getting to know ‘the other’ and in so doing dissolve some of the fears and reservations over who these men were and what their intention and desire was to be in the Netherlands. As Michelle Darmody co-founder of the Dublin based project Our Table described in an interview conducted for Feast The Meal (June 2017), how eating food prepared by others can help ameliorate some of the anxieties around different cultures and the figure of the “immigrant".

it’s very hard to be annoyed with someone that cooks dinner for you. On a human level, it absolutely breaks down barriers … …There’s a way of communicating over food that doesn’t need language, and if you don’t have a language in common you can definitely still share a meal together.

Serving The Homies

Serving local residents

King Of Dough

A fataya workshop.

The success of the catering service was however, short-lived. The reality of the men’s situation came to the fore when the residents of the entire processing centre in which they were staying and its residents were disbanded and rehoused within the brief space of just two days. Within those two days the close relationships and shared enthusiasm of Jurriaan and the group was spatially dispersed across the Netherlands. Rather than let the re-housing programme stop the growing success of the catering service, Jurriaan has worked to secure land in an Amsterdam city park that will be used for building The Syrian Chef’s first restaurant. The building plans include a restaurant, commercial kitchen and accommodation for the asylum seekers employed by the project. The Syrian Chefs restaurant will open in 2019 – a space for eating that demonstrates the initiative of a local chef and his engagement with a group of refuges to share their story and communicate a sense of home through the cooking and sharing of food. Bridging the often anxious divide between long term city residents and newly arrived refugees.


Visualisation of The Syrian Chefs restaurant opening 2019.

End Notes

Go to footnote reference 1.

The German children’s TV series Die Sendung mit dem Elephanten saw presenters travel across Germany visiting different refugee processing centres. Presenters met families and heard from children about their new daily routines which involved queuing for a canteen-style breakfast, having language lessons with center volunteers and trying to construct a sense of privacy for their family bunkbeds with sheeting and tarpaulin. Watching these scenes clearly shows how those who have made the journey to Europe are seeking security and a sense of home by constructing a place where they can feel safe and start to rebuild their lives. Die Sendung mit dem Elephanten further demonstrates an important attempt to connect with the new arrivals and educate German speaking children and families with the huge change the country and Europe as a whole is facing, welcoming and learning about the refugees in a bid to disband any animosity, fear and uncertainty of the impact of the increased ‘foreign’ population.

Laura Mansfield

Laura Mansfield is co-editor of FEAST