Lebanon’s Ahlan wa Sahlan restaurants feed the elderly and the destitute
Beirut - When she volunteered to feed displaced Christians at the height of Lebanon’s civil war, Antoinette Kazan thought the effort would last a week or maybe a month. But more than 30 years later, Kazan, now in her-mid 80s, is still feeding impoverished Lebanese and Syrian refugees.
Kazan’s spontaneous initiative to assist Christian families who had sought refuge in Beirut’s Christian neighbourhood of Sin el Fil in 1983 has developed into a chain of charity restaurants called Ahlan wa Sahlan (Welcome), the Lebanese version of France’s Restos du Coeur.
Recalling how friends and neighbours, with the help of the district’s municipality, joined efforts to assist the war-displaced, Kazan said in an interview with The Arab Weekly, “At the time, I had asked each household in the neighbourhood to donate cups, plates, cutlery and dishes… In a matter of two hours, we had many things, even carpets and curtains.”
Today, the energetic grey-haired lady runs her own non-governmental organisation (NGO), the Association of Friends of Charity Restaurants, which serves free hot meals to the needy through 16 Ahlan wa Sahlan restaurants across Lebanon. Three of the restaurants, including the main one in Sin el Fil, are owned by the NGO. The rest belong to various other charities. The restaurants serve breakfast and lunch and people can take away dinner, too.
“A hot meal for an empty stomach” is the slogan that drives a team of ten women volunteers in Sin el Fil restaurant to cook 300 lunch portions daily, except on weekends. Other restaurants feed hundreds of people two or three days a week.
Kazan recalled that in the beginning food was prepared by neighbours and friends at their homes and sent to the restaurant at noon. “Afterwards, we had the idea to establish an in-house kitchen and cook at the place itself,” said Kazan, a former Labour Ministry employee and volunteer with the Lebanese Red Cross.
The restaurant’ s clients are mainly destitute elderly people, the homeless and impoverished Lebanese families. While a few eat their meals at the restaurant, the majority discretely collect their portions and eat at home. “These people have lost everything but they should not lose their dignity,” Kazan said. “Many come in the afternoon, when the place is almost empty, to take away their food… It is hard for them to live on charity.”
Lebanon is facing an acute economic crisis and high unemployment rate, compounded with political instability and insecurity at the national and regional levels. The economic situation was made worse with the influx of some 1.5 million refugees fleeing violence in neighbouring Syria.
Kamal Sinno, the head of Lebanon’s Food Bank, raised the alarm about the growing number of Lebanese sliding into poverty. “Some people are almost dying from hunger. They have no one to take care of them and cannot work to earn a living,” he told The Arab Weekly.
Quoting the latest survey made by the Ministry of Social Affairs, Sinno said some 350,000 Lebanese live below the poverty line. “These are our clients. They survive on $1.50 a day. They are not the poor but much more than that. We are talking here about people who cannot afford a loaf of bread,” he said.
The Food Bank, which Sinno helped establish in 2012, caters exclusively for the Lebanese poor. It collects excess food from restaurants, five-star hotels and wedding venues and distributes it to the needy though 50 local NGOs across the country. The surplus food is gathered in refrigerated vans at midnight every day and distributed to the NGOs before 8am.
“Even the poor have the right to eat fresh, quality food,” he said. The Food Bank is feeding about 3,000 people daily. Sinno’s aim is to more than double the number of beneficiaries and reach at least 7,000 by the end of 2015.
Asked why the Food Bank is not assisting Syrian refugees, Sinno stressed: “We have to cover the Lebanese first because they are not receiving any aid, not even from the government. The (Syrian) refugees are getting donations and assistance from the United Nations and from Arab countries.”
“The Syrians are also taking the jobs of the Lebanese because they are cheaper labour,” he pointed out, reflecting the growing tensions with huge numbers of refugees in a country already reeling under economic strains.
The refugee influx has led to a glut of cheap labour, often undercutting workers from poor communities. The knock-on effect has been to push thousands of people into poverty and to worsen the situation of those already poor.
Ahlan wa Sahlan also felt the reverberations of the Syrian refugee influx. “At one point we were just invaded by the refugees. Even our budget suffered,” Kazan said. “They came here asking, ‘Where is that old lady who feeds people?’”
Kazan said she has organised assistance for Syrians to prevent friction with Lebanese beneficiaries. “Our restaurant is open to all needy people regardless of where they come from. Many Syrian women take away portions for their families but they are not eating here anymore.”
Kazan’s charity restaurants, which were established to help the war-displaced in 1983, are still needed in post-war Lebanon to help a rising number of impoverished Lebanese.
Her Ahlan wa Sahlan restaurants have no link with France’s Restos du Coeur, which were set up in 1985 by French artist Coluche.
“Our restaurants came before. We did not copy anyone,” Kazan proudly noted.