Refugee women find independence through catering

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Syrian women comprise the majority of cooks in Delicious by Shereen, helping them on the arduous journey to financial independence as they navigate life in America. (photo by Liz Nemeth)

“You can discover many things in food, culture and stories. When we cook, we cook with love and this is a thing all people can taste,” says Shereen Abdelfattah, an accountant turned social entrepreneur who founded the nonprofit Delicious by Shereen.

Abdelfattah emigrated to the United States from Egypt in 2002 when she and her husband, Hossam Elsaie, married. The couple and their four children moved to the Triad in 2009, just before the wave of Arab Spring uprisings that spurred a surge in Arab and Muslim people seeking refuge abroad. Abdelfattah — a recent recipient Winston-Salem Foundation’s ECHO Award — is on a mission is to assist those refugees on the arduous journey to financial independence as they navigate life in America. Currently, she works with five to 10 refugee families on an ongoing basis and hopes to expand the business enough to integrate more families on a rotating basis in the future.

“It’s especially important to us to create economic stability because most of the refugee men have part-time jobs right now so they work for low wages and are not able to pay all of rent,” she said.

Given her husband’s health issues, Mona Agha provides the primary source of income for her household. This isn’t anything radical: Women make up a significant portion of the workforce in most predominantly Muslim countries, contrary to Western stereotypes. In Damascus, Agha worked as a computer engineer under the inspector general in the prime minister’s office for nearly two decades before emigrating to the United States, where the language barrier makes finding work that aligns with her professional training unavailable. She left her home in 2013 for Istanbul, eventually finding her way to the United States in 2016. She says she does not see much difference between Syrians and Americans.

“But for us,” she said, “when we cook we spend many, many hours to prepare and we want to do everything from scratch.”

Agha says Westerners most enjoy her falafel, chicken shawarma and ma’amoul, a slightly sweet dessert cookie filled either dates, nuts like walnuts or pistachios, or a combination. She prepares hers in a dome shape, lightly sprinkled with powdered sugar.

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Ma’amoul (or mammal), is a slightly sweet dessert cookie filled either dates, nuts like walnuts or pistachios, or a combination.
(photo by Liz Nemeth)

Syrian women currently comprise the majority of cooks in the group but find that their new friends from different pockets of the country tend to use different spices, and they learn different techniques from each other that they pass on to Americans in their cooking workshops. As Syria’s capital, Damascus is one of the country’s more cosmopolitan cultural centers. Agha says the food is typically presented with a little more flair, compared to smaller cities and rural areas, although the food there is often just as good.

“We would love to do more cooking classes because it’s not just delivering food; to them, it’s starting relationships,” Abdelfattah says. “Cooking classes make Mona and the other women so happy because they are face to face with other people from the community. It gives them the opportunity to share experiences and make new friends.”

Delicious caters for private events ranging from small orders to feasts for 300, and hosts cooking workshops for anywhere between 10 and 20 people, but work is sporadic other than the reliable monthly take-out dinner events hosted at churches in Triad.

“All the churches here in Winston-Salem are doing an amazing job,” Abdelfattah says. “Our mosques help as much as they can but have limited resources.”

Still, some families end up enjoying an abundance of support from “good neighbor” teams assigned through World Relief, while others weren’t immediately plugged in to reliable, well-resourced networks.

Abdelfattah focuses on those families.

Her dream is to operate from a brick-and-mortar building with a certified kitchen, start cooking whole food and employing more women. She is ServSafe certified, but equipping a commercial kitchen is cost prohibitive and according to Abdelfattah, loans carrying interest are in conflict with her religious conviction. She says a shared commercial kitchen under development in Winston-Salem is more than a year away from opening, so plans to scale up are at an impasse.

Learn more and place orders at deliciousbyshereen.com.

“This could be success for the whole Triad,” Abdelfattah says. “We have the certifications to start, we are ready to go but we need the financial support. We don’t work every day and there is not stability to what we are doing. We want to help them on a regular basis, so they can depend on this as salary or basic income every month and plan expenses.”

It’s clear she isn’t looking to line her pockets.

“We appreciate what they are doing and work with any situation,” Abdelfattah says. “We want to make this a good environment, so they feel they are the owner, not worker.”

For her, it comes down to basic human dignity and the idea that communities thrive when all members are valued.

“I want for them to be able to afford their utilities,” Abdelfattah says. “I want to give them peace and the feeling that they don’t have to worry again, that they have stable good jobs and can be part of their community, that they can grow their future here in America.” 

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