Newcomer Kitchen is back, but they still need your help

After almost closing last year, Newcomer Kitchen is back to support newcomer women in Canada 

On a Wednesday afternoon at  The Depanneur , a self-described “urban food hub” in Toronto’s West End that hosts a wide range of food-related events, a group of six Syrian women are in a whirlwind of activity. The scents of fried eggplant, spiced rice and roast chicken waft over the kitchen, while the sweet lilt of iconic Lebanese singer Fairouz’s voice soars in between the sounds of cooking and conversation. 

Some of the women supervise the clatter of pots and pans, the exhaust fans whirring overhead, while others sit around a big wooden table, 50 personal-size foil dishes laid in front of them. They are slowly layering the ingredients for maqlouba into each container: nuts and parsley make up the base, then fried eggplant, chicken, and rice to fill it up to the top. (The name of the popular Middle Eastern dish loosely translates to “upside down” for the way it’s served—carefully inverted onto a plate.)  

At a counter behind them, her hair tied back in a blue bandana and her face flushed from the heat of the kitchen, Rahaf Al Akbani is pouring container after container of yoghurt into a massive tub, mixing it with sliced cucumber to make the salad that will accompany this dish. 

“I’ve been here from the beginning,” Al Akbani says. She is the co-founder of this bustling project, called  Newcomer Kitchen, a group of Syrian women that meet weekly at The Depanneur to cook and sell Syrian suppers to the surrounding community. 

It took time and trust for Newcomer Kitchen to get off the ground 

That beginning was two years ago, when Cara Benjamin-Pace, the project’s executive director, first approached The Depanneur’s owner, Len Senater. He calls his space “a place where interesting food things happen,” and it regularly plays host to drop-in dinners, workshops, supper clubs and more. So in February 2016, when all of Canada watched as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau went to Toronto’s Pearson Airport to welcome thousands of  refugees with a warm smile and warm winter coats, Benjamin-Pace was inspired. “It was a real iconic Canadian moment,” she says. “I said to Len, ‘You know, we have a kitchen. And there are times when the kitchen is closed. Why don’t we invite some of the Syrian women to cook here sometimes?’” 

Senater was on board from the beginning—but it took a mix of time and trust to bring the vision to life. 

Word of the idea soon traveled to Toronto’s Plaza Hotel, where waves of Syrian refugees were arriving. The idea spread even further thanks to Al Akbani and her husband, who were refugees themselves and had earned the other women’s trust. A massive WhatsApp group, which the women used to communicate with one another, also helped. By April, a dozen women had signed on.  But  what began as a group of 12 soon rose to 50, then 60. Now, Al Akbani says, 75 women are part of the weekly project, which is half social enterprise, half social program. 

The Syrian suppers—each comprised of an appetizer, main and dessert—were an instant hit, thanks in part to The Depanneur’s robust customer base, but also to Torontonians’ desire to support refugees. Menus for the following week’s supper are posted to the Dep’s website on Friday nights, and the 50 meals on offer, which go for $25 each, always sell out. 

Newcomer Kitchen’s offerings have expanded, too. Foodora has signed on as a partner, offering free delivery within 3 km of The Depanneur. And visitors can now sign up to cook with the women through  AirBnB Experiences. There’s even a documentary in the works from Toronto filmmaker Kelly Kieley. (She has committed to splitting the proceeds from her  Indiegogo campaign with Newcomer Kitchen.) 

Funding shortages are an ongoing challenge

Unsurprisingly, Newcomer Kitchen has made headlines and attracted high-profile fans.  In 2016,  Toronto Mayor John Tory had Newcomer Kitchen cater a Canada Day Iftar. “The party was amazing,” recalls Benjamin-Pace. “We couldn’t get John Tory out of the kitchen. No one ever wants to leave the kitchen!” Federal Minister of Immigration Ahmed Hussen also recently paid the Kitchen a visit, as did a team from the  New York Times. 

But as Newcomer Kitchen’s popularity has grown, so has the challenge of funding it. Soon after it launched, it was quickly becoming a full-time operation, and had accrued the debt to show it. But a 2016 online fundraising campaign—”a nailbiter,” says Benjamin-Pace—helped them break even again. Then, last year, it became a not-for-profit. Pop-ups and private catering gigs were starting to pay for basic things like ingredients and packaging—not to mention paying the women their share of the remaining profits. The women, who make about $15 an hour, often use part of their wages on rent, and send the rest back to the Middle East. These much-needed, sometimes critical, remittances help fund things like operations—for a son whose liver is failing due to extreme heat and dehydration, for example—or support a daughter welcoming a new baby. “For everything they’re doing here to make a new life, their hearts are in pieces back home,” says Benjamin-Pace.

Newcomer Kitchen was at risk of shutting down at the end of 2017, until they received a dose of funding in December through Toronto Pearson’s Propellor Project. The $50,000 grant gave Newcomer Kitchen another six months of funding.  But while the hefty fund pumped some much-needed life-blood into the organization, Benjamin-Pace says that small donations keep the work going, too.  The impact of that funding is on full display in the bustling kitchen.  

It’s a social program, too

Al Akbani sees how time in the kitchen working side by side with one another gives the women a sense of purpose and pride. “This is a social program. It isn’t just about getting paid.” 

Take Mariam Al Qurm, who is from Damascus and arrived in Canada in 2016. Though she’s happy to be here, underneath her smile is a thin film of sadness. Some of her sons are with her in Canada—and she’s joined today at Newcomer Kitchen with her daughter-in-law Muna—but her other children are spread out between Jordan and Turkey. “I wish we were all together,” she says. “It doesn’t matter where.”  But being at Newcomer Kitchen helps. It’s like being part of a big family—and knowing that people like their food feels good, too. “We’re very happy that people like our food. It gives us confidence,” she says. 

Rahmeh Al Turkmani, one of the women layering the dishes of maqlouba, agrees. She arrived here from Dara’a in 2015. “It lifts my spirits and makes me feel like I’m home when we make the things that we love. It’s our food,” she says with a proud smile. She says the feeling that goes into the cooking makes all the difference. “It’s not just about having enough salt or onions. If you’re cooking for someone you love, that’s what will make a meal delicious.” 

Looking to the future

Al Akbani has moved into a managerial role now and has technically stepped away from cooking. She is also newly pregnant, and the women, especially the older ones, fret over her working herself too hard. But she still can’t resist rolling up her sleeves. 

“I can’t just sit still and watch them!” she says, stirring the yoghurt and cucumber one last time before dishing the mixture out into individual containers, garnishing each serving with a sprig of fresh mint. 

She also can’t resist thinking about what Newcomer Kitchen could become, given the chance—and the funding.  

“What I wish is for us to have more than one location,” she says. “With 75 women, it can take two months for every woman to have a chance here.” 

Benjamin-Pace has even loftier goals. She is teaming up with Pearson Airport for a project called “Newcomer Kitchen at the Gate,” where the women of Newcomer Kitchen will have a presence in the airport’s immigration halls. New arrivals often spend hours there before becoming permanent residents. Newcomer Kitchen will be on-hand providing a familiar taste of home as well as information and support to the latest wave of newcomers while they navigate what can be a lengthy, daunting process.  

The symbolism of that is strong, says Benjamin-Pace. “It will be saying: ‘Like you, we were here two years ago. And it’s going to be okay.’”