Refugee thrives on Arab cuisine

13 de junho de 2016

São Paulo – The 35-year-old Syrian refugee Muna Darweesh is thriving in Brazil by cooking typical dishes to order for a clientele that keeps growing. In 2013, she, her 43-year-old husband Wessam Aljammal and their three children left Syria’s Mediterranean Sea coast city of Latakia and headed for Egypt. They spent three months there while applying for asylum in Switzerland. “The doors were closed, so we opted for Brazil instead,” Muna said on Thursday (9). After arriving in the country, the family grew bigger with the birth of their youngest son, who is now three years old.

The family left Syria “because of everything,” as she describes it: the war, the political and financial crisis. “Our city was calmer than others where conflict was underway, like Homs. But we left because of everything that’s happening there,” she said.

Unlike other Syrian refugees, she claims to have adapted fast in São Paulo. “There are lots of Syrians and Lebanese here, lots of Arabs and Muslims. We grew accustomed to the local culture quick,” she said. The difficult part was to earn a living for the family upon arrival. Muna holds a degree in English literature. Wessam is a naval engineer. “We couldn’t find work in our areas. I even landed a job, but the pay was bad,” said Muna.

The solution was to cook typical dishes and sell them. With aid from the NGO Adus, she put up her recipes on social media. She then started cooking at folk festivals and fairs, and has even taught a workshop on Arab recipes. “The Brazilians loved it,” she said.

She also takes part in Festival Árabe (the Arab Festival), held on weekends in the Brás neighborhood. On Fridays, a holy day for Muslims, she sells snacks and sweets at mosque Mesquita Brasil, in São Paulo’s downtown Cambuci neighborhood. While he looks for a job as an engineer, Wessam helps her out in the kitchen.

“In Syria, all women learn how to cook. I learned it from my mother. Cooking to sell was the way I found to make money in Brazil. But the way I cook my recipes is a bit different than what I learned from my mother,” Muna explained. The top-selling dishes are sfiha, kibbeh and falafel (chickpea dumplings), but that doesn’t mean these are the tastiest. “These Arab dishes are the only ones Brazilians know of. We have numerous other options, and I am introducing my clients to them. There are several types of salad, rice and lentils, stuffed eggplant and cheese-based sweets. The options are aplenty,” she asserted.

She says it is hard to tell how much she will sell on any given month, because that depends on the orders and the events she gets called to, but she is sure that orders are increasing. Recently, Muna and her husband cooked for a party for 300 guests in Tucuruvi, a neighborhood in North Side São Paulo. “The demand is increasing more and more. Now, I want to open a restaurant, but I don’t have the cash yet,” she said. The dishes are cooked in the kitchen of the Liberdade neighborhood apartment the family is living in.

The husband is still looking for a job as a naval engineer. “I don’t intend to go back to teaching. I don’t need to. The pay is low and I earn more by cooking,” she said.

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*Translated by Gabriel Pomerancblum