They bet on Egyptians’ love for anything Syrian, and so they decided to learn the art of making sweets and other foods; and through their enthusiasm, dynamism and determination, they succeeded in a country where unemployment rates are rampant. These are the Syrian women who came to Egypt to escape a vicious civil war, distinguishing themselves in Cairo in the art of making pastries as well as catering banquets – earning the trust of many Egyptians who flock to purchase their products because of their superior quality and good prices. How were these Syrian women able to succeed in the Egyptian market?
'Um Lu'ay' never imagined that one day she would be a pastry chef in Egypt; she didn't even work before 2011, when she lived with her husband and son in their Damascus home. However, their lives would be completely upturned with the arrival of "Arab Spring", forcing Um Lu'ay to flee her country to Lebanon for some time. However, Um Lu'ay says that she did not feel comfortable there, and would soon seize the opportunity to travel to Egypt when told that Syrians are treated well in Egypt and don’t face harassment or abuse.
Um Lu'ay thus made her way to Cairo along with her family, renting a flat in the Sixth of October area on the outskirts of Cairo. Her husband would quickly find employment in a clothes factory owned by Syrians in the Tenth of Ramadan area of Cairo; however, there were no suitable opportunities for her in the factory, leaving her to search for another field in which she could find employment. As she surfed her Facebook feed one day she came across a sponsored advertisement by an Egyptian civil society association, promoting a training course for Syrian women teaching them the art of making sweets – while stipulating a single condition that the participants possessed a 'Yellow Card': a document given to Syrian refugees granting them a certain set of rights, including registering in Egyptian schools and universities without the need for a valid passport. (Syrian refugees mostly are unable to renew their passports these days)
Um Lu'ay told Raseef22 that she was elated when she was told that the course was free; indeed, she would even be reimbursed for her transport costs, and would be eligible to request a small amount of funds to start her own project following the successful conclusion of the training course.
The Pastry Making Journey
Um Lu'ay would head to the association, which conveniently happened to be near her home – another sign from God encouraging her to enroll in the course. For two weeks, she would learn the art of sweet-making in both their simplest and best methods at the hands of Egyptian chefs, making Um Lu'ay believe that this was the profession in which she could succeed in Egypt – especially that she knew full-well that Egyptians loved to eat Syrian food, she told Raseef22.
"I dream of opening my own restaurant soon, and prove that Syrian women are not just numbers in Egypt but successful migrants who have much to offer to the society that welcomed them with open arms" said Um Lu'ay, a rising catering chef in Cairo
'Um Lu'ay' never imagined that one day she would be a pastry chef in Egypt; she didn't even work before 2011, when she lived with her husband and son in their Damascus home. Their lives would be completely upturned with the arrival of "Arab Spring"
After the end of the course, Um Lu'ay began the practical application of what she learnt through preparing eastern and western sweets and offering them to her neighbors; according to Um Lu'ay, she began gifting them free samples of the food she prepared, calling on them to get in touch if they wanted to buy bigger quantities. Within a short period of time the residents of the area would do just that.
The next step was Um Lu'ay's decision to go to the street to sell her product, choosing to stand in front of a huge commercial mall in the Sixth of October area –known as 'Hyper One'. Cars started to stop next to her stall, asking about her prices and buying her freshly-made products.
According to Um Lu'ay: "I knew what Egyptians liked, they love oriental sweets, such as Zalabia, Kanafeh, Basbousa and Asabe' Zainab – all of which were I prepared very well according to the testimonies of the people."
Subsequently, Um Lu'ay would soon join another course in the same association, where she learned other forms of cooking, notably how to prepare banquets; she thus became qualified to expand her business to include the preparation of other cuisines including Samosas, stuffed squash, and different types of meats and chicken including Shawarma. She additionally learnt how to market and promote her product through social media sites, and how to prepare proposal menus for parties.
"In this association I got to know Syrian women who came specifically to learn how to cook, we benefited a lot from this training, and were able to attend more advanced training courses" Um Lu'ay told Raseef22.
Um Lu'ay now reports that many clients have asked her to prepare banquets in their homes, especially during the month of Ramadan – affirming that she has now become an expert in producing both Egyptian and Syrian foods, while adding that her clients now often ask her to prepare Syrian dishes such as Kibbeh, stuffed squash (dolma), Aleppan Mansaf, Malfuf, Maqluba and a wide range of grilled dishes.
Cooking Basics at an NGO
The association which offered Um Lu'ay the opportunity to learn how to cook is called 'Habebit Alkhair' ('lover of good'): a non-governmental Egyptian charity association which focuses on training refugees across a range of professions and skills to help them earn a living in Egypt and integrate into society.
Mohamed Anwar Nabeeh, who heads the managing board of the charity, told Raseef22 that "Habebit Alkhair" seeks to integrate and merge women refugees in Egyptian society, aiming to help them succeed in order to enable them to work and make a living in various fields, such as cooking and teaching pre-school aged children.
Nabeeh affirms that the association which helped Um Lu'ay also aided in facilitating dozens of other women to start their own projects, providing them with the necessary funding to start a successful project or succeed in work opportunities – while adding that participants in cooking courses for example receive accredited certificates from the World Food Programme (WFP). According to Nabeeh, approximately 250 Syrian and Egyptian women have been trained professionally by the association.
Yet 'Habebit Alkhair' isn't the only organisation supporting Syrian women to succeed in their professional lives through training courses; amongst other associations are 'The Souriyat [Syrian women] association', founded in Cairo in 2013 with the goal of sponsoring Syrian women and helping them to learn different professions, such as crochet, cooking, languages, makeup and hairdressing.
The Souriyat association in Egypt cooperates with the Arab Organisation for Human Rights; its general coordinator is the Syrian woman Mufida al-Khatib. The association has succeeded in training dozens of Syrian women in various professions and helped them to succeed and integrate in Egyptian society.
It should be noted that according to a 2017 report by the World Bank titled "Refugee Crisis in MENA: Meeting the Development Challenge", more than 115,000 Syrian refugees are registered with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) as residing in Egypt – however, the Egyptian government estimates that the real number is higher.
I dream of opening my own restaurant soon, and prove that Syrian women are not just numbers in Egypt but successful migrants who have much to offer to the society that welcomed them with open arms" Um Lu'ay concludes, before excusing herself to return to the kitchen to prepare sweets and other dishes requested by her customers.