Displaced by War, Refugees Find Hope in Their Food Culture

Can "gastro-diplomacy" close the gap between refugees and their host countries?

Lovely Syrian food after the workshop on constructed wetlands in Damascus Photo by E. v. Münch (Jan. 2009)
Photo Credit: E. v. Münch/Flickr CC

According to the United Nations, 6.6 million people have been displaced by Syria’s civil war. They have found refuge across the globe, facing economic hardship, language barriers, social and cultural acclimation. Despite their challenges, Syrians find hope and solace in their traditional food culture as a source of normalcy, stability, and hope in bridging cultural divides.

In Paris, New York, Berlin, and Amsterdam, Syrian chefs do so by sharing their traditional cuisine with locals. Can gastro-diplomacy close the gap between refugees and their host countries? According to Mervyn Claxton, an expert in international relations, “food, cooking, and eating habits play a central role in every culture” and, in turn, cultural exchange.

Chef Kamal Naji, previously a lawyer in Syria, believes food “breaks stereotypes between refugees and citizens of host countries.” He found purpose in the Netherlands cooking for his fellow 300 refugees “to make them feel even slightly that they are in their country.”

Today, seeing the happiness and comfort he brings to refugees has pushed him to expand his project. Naji currently serves Syrian food to refugees and Dutch diners interested in the spices and flavors of his home country. He sees food’s power “as the link that brings people together from different cultures.” Cooking for refugees and Dutch citizens in Amsterdam with a shared desire for Syrian cuisine has changed his project, highlighting a sense of unity and creating a goal of cultural understanding.

Many Syrians have found a similar niche in cooking for their fellow refugees and host nationals. In Paris, chefs work to reverse stereotypes, sharing Syrian food in restaurants, local markets, and food festivals. In Berlin, the Kitchen Hub facilitates positive interaction between refugees and locals through meals.

In New York City, the startup Eat Offbeatprovides job opportunities to refugees cooking and delivering Syrian cuisine to New Yorkers. Gastrodiplomacy is permeating the dialogue surrounding the Syrian refugee crisis by breaking cultural barriers, easing economic hardship, and preserving Syrian cultural heritage through job creation and cultural integration. 

For the Syrian refugee crisis, one of the worst humanitarian crises of our time, the complexities of war are substantial. The impacts are social, economic, environmental, and political. However, as Syrian chefs have shown the world, the simplicity of a shared meal could provide answers to the multifaceted issue of war and peace.

Alexa Mestas is a graduate student in Rome working towards a master's degree in Food Studies. She has a background in Political Science and Middle East Peace Studies that has narrowed in her new research concerning gastro-diplomacy, its possible impacts on cultural heritage, conflict resolution and peace relations.

Sign Up!
Get AlterNet's Daily Newsletter in Your Inbox
+ sign up for additional lists
Select additional lists by selecting the checkboxes below before clicking Subscribe:
Election 2018