[Editor’s note: This article runs in a new section of The Tyee called ‘What Works: The Business of a Healthy Bioregion,’ where you’ll find profiles of people creating the low-carbon, sustainable economy we need from Alaska to California. Find out more about this project and its funders.]
Each morning, Nihal Elwan sits down at one of the six freshly painted fuchsia tables in her Kitsilano storefront and maps the expanding future. She and her team at Tayybeh Catering have reached a milestone she could only have dreamed of when she started a pop-up dinner service eight years ago.
From the beginning, people liked what she was serving. And they were moved by the stories behind the meals. Tayybeh’s staff are refugee women, mostly from Syria or other Middle Eastern war zones, cooking ancestral foods in a new homeland.
On the first day of this month, Elwan and her 20 staff opened a full-service restaurant in Vancouver’s Kitsilano neighbourhood after eight years of catering Syrian favourites like creamy labneh, comforting fava bean stew, savoury beef kebab in tahini and classic chicken shish tawook.
“We've had so many people along the years asking us for a restaurant,” said Elwan. “So it's finally happening.”
Tayybeh, which means “kind” or “delicious” in Arabic, started with a $500 Vancouver Foundation grant in 2016. Called “Tayybeh: A Celebration of Syrian Cuisine,” the pop-up dinner project catered by Syrian refugee women was the outcome of Elwan’s early efforts to find ways of meaningfully connecting the Syrian refugees with whom she volunteered with the broader community in Vancouver.
“I moved to Vancouver in 2014, and in 2015 the Syrian civil war was happening, and Canada received tens of thousands of refugees from Syria; at the time, everyone was following the news and, of course, feeling like, ‘I wish I could do something to help,’” she said.
In 2014, Elwan, who speaks Arabic, volunteered for an organization that provided interpretation for newcomer and refugee families fleeing the brewing civil war in Syria.
“I did some of those interpretation sessions, and then the idea that stayed with me was ‘How do we support these women?’” she said.
Elwan said she was moved after listening to the experiences of women who did not speak English and had to flee their home countries to come to Canada. The refugees “literally just landed in Vancouver, and they were still in motels. You could see the uncertainty in their eyes,” she recalled.
They were among over 44,620 Syrian refugees who have come to Canada since November 4, 2015, according to the Canadian government.
For many of her refugee employees, Elwan noted, work at Tayybeh marks the first opportunity to earn an independent income because, in their families, men are traditionally the sole income earners.
The “financial independence of the team members, including their ability to support their families, take care of their children and give them a good education, get their kids married, is the most important part,” Elwan said.
The concept for Elwan’s first pop-up meal was simple: bring people together for dinner.
The event was funded by a Vancouver Foundation grant called Neighbourhood Small Grants intended to connect neighbourhood residents with one another. Elwan recalls her concept for the night. “The project at the time was, OK, let's borrow a restaurant and have you [Syrian women] create us a menu of Syrian food items. We'll invite some people to come to the restaurant, you will meet some Canadians, they will try your food, and then it will be fantastic,” she said.
Elwan advertised the event on a Facebook event page and it sold out in under an hour. Still, she wasn’t sure how many people would show up. So she rented out a local Palestinian restaurant and limited seating to 50 people. Guests packed the house, emboldening Elwan to host larger gatherings for 100, then more.
Within the year, the pop-ups quickly turned into dinners every six to eight weeks. They sold out a 150-seat feast within hours. A Tayybeh dinner became one of the hottest tickets in town.
According to a 2018 report by the Immigrant Services Society of BC, the most pressing worries Syrian refugees expressed about their new homes related to health and mental health, housing, language and employment.
Working at Tayybeh can be a help in all those categories, by providing refugee women and their families a source of money and cultural cohesion.
“We have participated in many community events in the city, including events supporting newcomers. The Indian Summer Festival, conferences, gatherings and many more. Each one of these events is an opportunity for us to share our story, tell members of the community about the work we do and hopefully get more people to try Tayybeh’s food,” Elwan said.
In 2017, Elwan and her staff were named Foodies of the Year by Western Living magazine. In early 2018, the group received the Champion of Women award from the Vancouver organization Voices of Muslim Women.
“At Tayybeh, we like to think of ourselves as contributing to setting up new networks of food production and distribution that are informed by minoritized, racialized and historically disenfranchised communities,” Elwan said.
Nourishing health for nature as well as people
When it comes to environmental sustainability, Elwan considers the well-being of her staff to be connected to the wellness of the wider community and ecology. “We are very committed to the circular economy and health,” she said.
She noted that the Tayybeh staff and kitchen team are Syrian or Levantine in origin, and some come from farming families. “In their home countries, they are accustomed to sourcing all of their ingredients from local producers and vendors. All meals are prepared based on the seasonality of the crops and produce,” she said.
These experiences inform their approaches to working with food at Tayybeh in Vancouver. “With many of our products being Buy BC certified, we are thrilled to be bringing locally sourced and produced, delicious Syrian foods like our pita chips, dips and all of our frozen meals,” Elwan said. “The same is true of our catering services and café products, where we strive to find fresh local options for all of our food.”
While the company does its best to minimize its carbon footprint through a range of strategies in the kitchen and through its catering practices, Elwan said some of the ingredients central to Tayybeh’s menu must be sourced outside of the region.
“Normally, in Syria, our chefs would have a minimal footprint in preparation of their ancestral recipes,” she said. Here in Canada, however, special items like herbs, spices or pomegranate molasses, “the signature ingredient,” are sourced from the Middle East. For Elwan, this is part of the sometimes intangible work of creating pathways for her staff that she described as “globally minded but locally networked.”
Since Tayybeh started eight years ago, the company has employed more than 50 people in roles ranging from kitchen staff to drivers. Elwan estimates that they’ve catered hundreds of events and served tens of thousands of meals since their inception.
‘I like to cook with my friends’
Hala Maghamez long dreamed of being an actress. The income she earns working at Tayybeh has helped her pay to attend the Vancouver Film School. After moving to Vancouver from Edmonton, she started working at Tayybeh as a server and was promoted to catering manager within a year.
“I feel like I’m tied to my culture,” said Maghamez, who fled Syria in 2015. “Because I always feel this need to find my people.”
Maha Alahmad, a chef for Tayybeh, said she’s grateful to be part of a vibrant community led by women. Alahmad fled Syria in 2013, two years after the war began. She spent five years in neighbouring Turkey before arriving in Canada.
Coming to work with other Syrians, she said via a translator, doesn’t feel like a job, but rather like spending time with family. “My team here is my friends. My family. I like to cook with my friends from Syria because the food is familiar,” said Alahmad.
There is power in the sisterhood Tayybeh nurtures, said Elwan. She sees in her growing team “a shift in the power dynamics at home and a rise in the sense of independence and empowerment.”
“It’s a beautiful story of new beginnings and rediscovering one’s inner strength.”