Coventry’s refugee-run Arabian Bites showcases cultural diversity in Ramadan

The refugee-run Arabian Bites team, chefs and volunteers, break their fast on water and dates just as guests enter for a taste of the Middle East.
Sunday 19/05/2019
With utmost care. Volunteers prepapre to serve food at Drapers Bar and Kitchen in Coventry.               (Arabian Bites)
With utmost care. Volunteers prepapre to serve food at Drapers Bar and Kitchen in Coventry. (Arabian Bites)

COVENTRY, England - An unsuspecting crowd gathered at Drapers Bar and Kitchen in Coventry, eager to taste the decade-old recipes whipped up by the Middle Eastern chefs at Arabian Bites.

The refugee-run Arabian Bites team, chefs and volunteers, break their fast on water and dates just as guests enter for a taste of the Middle East and a special meal that marks the initiative’s first anniversary.

What began as a volunteer-led, pop-up restaurant in a rented kitchen has, a year later, made an indelible mark on the local independent food scene and community.

One person at the heart of the initiative is the Reverend Liz Jackson. The pilot programme drew inspiration from celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen model, which helps transform disadvantaged young people into Michelin-level chefs. However, the initiative offers a great deal more.

Having relied heavily on volunteers in the past, the head chefs and front-of-house staff from Iraq and Syria, with the help of $6,500 grant from the Coventry City Council, have been made paid staff to ensure quality consistency.

Mohammad Najjar and Ahmad Alfier, the permanent head chefs from Syria, are supported by front-of-house staff Martin Moma and Simon al-Soraji, who fled Iraq because of persecution of Christians.

A regular diner at Arabian Bites, Bridie Hernon, an adviser at the Citizens Advice Bureau, praised what she described as “a much-needed social enterprise in the heart of Coventry.”

“The food is delicious and made with utmost care,” she said, emphasising how it has nurtured “trans-local connections for Syrian and Iraqi refugees through cuisine and celebrated their heritage with Coventry locals.”

Behind the culinary delights whipped up by the Arabian Bites team is a beautiful harmony, Jackson explained. Their labour of love, a Middle Eastern-packed, Mezze-inspired menu that pays homage to the homes the refugees were forced to leave behind, allowed friendships to blossom.

Giving back to the community is one of two ideas that propelled the refugee-run business to success. Social cohesion and integration make up the other and “what better than food is there?” asked Jackson.

“A community has grown around Arabian Bites,” Jackson said as various circles from Arab diasporas to vegan devotees, embrace the universal language of home-cooked Middle Eastern staples that newly resettled Iraqi and Syrian refugees have prepared. Successes that the initiative boasts were unimaginable for participants a year ago.

The same communal spirit has carried into Ramadan, during which Muslims abstain from food and drink from dawn till dusk. “We made the decision to wait until our staff could break their fast,” Jackson said, while assuring that it is business as usual at Arabian Bites.

Allowing Syrian and Iraqis displaced by war to revive culinary traditions they grew up with empowers them to participate in public life, develop transferable skill sets and regain ownership of their destiny.

Since 2014, the Coventry City Council has been committed to the resettlement of 125 people a year, which it is scheduled to continue through next year. It has welcomed many communities from Syria, Iraq and Yemen, using food sharing to honour their past and embrace their present.

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