The ‘Joy of Heaven’ for Lebanon’s poor

Sunday 15/05/2016
A family enjoying a free meal at the Saadat al-Samaa restaurant in Tripoli, Lebanon.

Tripoli, Lebanon - Saadat al-Samaa — the “Joy of Heaven” — has become accessible for those who cannot afford a decent meal in impoverished Trip­oli, Lebanon’s second largest city and home to about 200,000 Syrian refugees.

The restaurant bearing the unu­sual name is a luxurious place of­fering free meals to the poor who could not otherwise consider going to such a place. It has a set weekly menu and a staff of volunteers.

“I did not expect to see such a sumptuous restaurant. The name indicates clearly that it is a res­taurant for the poor, which makes us expect a simple place offering regular and plain meals,” said Abou Tony, 75.

“I am really thrilled about having a decent good meal of which I have been deprived for years, basically since my wife passed away. I live alone and all I can afford are sand­wiches and canned food,” he said.

The restaurant, which opened in April, is in the historic seaside Mina quarter of Tripoli and is the second such outlet to be established by Majdi Allawi, the head of the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Saadat al-Samaa. A similar restau­rant opened in Beirut two years ago.

The two-storey building, which can take up to 80 diners, is in a freshly refurbished building with an arcaded roof and stone walls, nicely illuminated with intricate lighting. It is equipped with new oak tables and chairs and large tel­evision screens.

Abou Tony is among dozens of destitute people, including Syrian refugees, who flock daily to the res­taurant. A big board at the entrance features the list of dishes prepared by a specially hired cook and served by nine volunteers.

“Charities and social welfare groups have been helping us in run­ning the place, basically by provid­ing volunteer workers,” said restau­rant supervisor Robert Ayoub.

He said the NGO relies on dona­tions in kind and crowd funding to sustain operations, which feed up to 150 persons daily, seven days a week. “In case we have more peo­ple coming in, there are alternative dishes, such as quickly prepared pastas and other fast-food, because we refuse to have those coming to us return with empty stomachs,” Ayoub said.

As with its founder, a Shia who converted to Christianity, Saadat al-Samaa’s clients come from vari­ous religious groups, sects and na­tionalities.

The place is open to all — be they Muslims or Christians, Lebanese or Syrians — who are unable to obtain decent and nutritious meals, Allawi said.

“The aim is to assist those in need, especially that the economic conditions in the country are be­coming increasingly difficult,” he said. “Also, with average salaries being so low, no one can afford to take his children out for lunch or dinner and I believe it is the right of every person to experience a meal in a five-star restaurant.

“When I was young during the (1975-90) civil war in Lebanon, I was deprived of such outings with my family. That is why I wanted to open this restaurant in this impov­erished city, because hunger and deprivation have no colour, reli­gion or nationality.”

Tripoli has the highest rate of poverty in Lebanon. Conditions for its 400,000 inhabitants have worsened with the influx of about 200,000 refugees fleeing war in Syria and an estimated 250,000 Lebanese rural migrants who moved to the city looking for em­ployment opportunities.

A recent UN study indicated that 57% of Tripoli’s inhabitants are poor and deprived and 26% of them suffer extreme poverty and are classified within the most dis­advantaged category. About three-quarters are struggling economical­ly, 35% suffer health problems, 35% live in inadequate housing and 25% are deprived of education.

While free food is traditionally of­fered to the needy and those fast­ing during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Allawi’s endeavour is bringing a smile to deprived fami­lies throughout the year.

“I came today with my three chil­dren. They are thrilled at the idea of having a meal in a restaurant. Since we fled Syria four years ago, we haven’t had a decent meal. This place makes us feel that we are dig­nified humans and have the right to some joy,” said Syrian refugee Khadija al-Said as she walked into Saadat al-Samaa.