What the French call gastronomy—quality ingredients in season—is like our daily food in Syriaby Wendell Steavenson / July 17, 2018 / Leave a comment
On 20th June, World Refugee Day, I sat with Mohammad El Khaldy, a Syrian chef, outside in the sunshine in Paris. He told me his story and I wrote it down in my notebook:
“Left Damascus early 2012, Lebanese wife, three small sons, Bekaa Valley, problems with the Lebanese authorities, went to Cairo (without his family), started a restaurant just off Tahir Square.
“Problem with visa permissions, post Sisi takeover Egyptians revoked the Syrian visa waiver, landlord locked him out of his restaurant, offer/opportunity of restaurant in Marrakesh but he would have had to enter Morocco illegally, got involved with another restaurant project in Cairo.
“His wife and sons joined him after more than two years of separation, but he was pushed out again by his Egyptian partners who knew, as a foreigner of doubtful legal status, he had no recourse, sold his furniture, borrowed money, ‘my wife said: no we stay together.’
“13th July 2014 boat from Alexandria back and forth five days between offshore Alex and offshore Libya, every day a hundred more people ferried to the boat, ‘we threw everything overboard, even sonar equipment, to get space to put people.’
“750 people on the boat. 12 days. Dates, water, ‘finished food in seven days.’ Finally a container ship saw them, came alongside, gave them water, milk for children, bread, mortadella, canned fish, radioed their position to Italian navy. Life jackets, weather bad swells, two days on navy boat to Italy, basketball hall, ‘they cooked for us.’
“Police coming in the morning, bus ticket office closed, nice local Mayor opened bus ticket office, bus to Rome, train to Milan, slept in station, cousin in Denmark, 28 Syrians in a group on train, to Hamburg, to Copenhagen, to very north of Denmark, ‘one year I worked helping translate into English, driver at the camp.’ Asylum refused. To Germany. Brother in Paris. Arrived in Paris October 2015. Camp. After six months accepted asylum France.”
I have listened to many similar stories of flight and displacement over the last few years. The details change but there remains an essential template: a miserable shuttling back and forth between closed and closing borders, expired passports, money running out, working illegally, exploitation, separation from family, smugglers, a terrible open…