‘Soufra,’ an inspiring journey of a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon

“Soufra,” the Arabic word for a table filled with good food, is the name of a documentary and the catering company that was established to introduce Palestinian dishes to the Lebanese market.
Sunday 07/04/2019
A taste of tradition. Dishes prepared by the Soufra team.   (Courtesy of Soufra)
A taste of tradition. Dishes prepared by the Soufra team. (Courtesy of Soufra)

BEIRUT - Mariam Shaar’s story of resilience and determination to empower other Palestinian women in Beirut’s Bourj al-Barajneh refugee camp has inspired a documentary that recorded obstacles she surmounted to establish the first refugee catering and food truck in Lebanon.

“Soufra,” the Arabic word for a table filled with good food, is the name of the documentary co-produced by film star Susan Sarandon and the catering company that Shaar established to introduce traditional Palestinian dishes to the Lebanese market.

Shaar, director of the Women’s Programme Association in Bourj al-Barajneh, where she was born and raised, said the idea of setting up the business materialised after a survey on the needs of women in Palestinian camps in 2012.

“The study indicated that the majority of women needed badly to work but most had no proper education or skills and did not want to spend a lot of time away from their households or go outside the camp,” Shaar said.

“We thought that a food business would be the best option since they all wanted to engage in what they do best, namely cooking.”

For a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon who is forbidden from holding many jobs and lacking the financial and legal means to start a business, Shaar sought to improve her condition and that of other female camp residents.

With the financial help of Alfanar, a venture philanthropy organisation, Soufra’s catering business was founded and proved to be a hit.

“We started with ten ladies. As the work load increased, we employed more women. Now we have some 40 employees, including cooks, an administrator, a kitchen director, an office boy and a cleaner,” Shaar said.

“Women at the camp loved the idea and more candidates sought to work with us but we tried as much as possible to hire those who are really in bad need of income such as widows, divorcees and those whose husbands are disabled and cannot work.”

Food professionals from Souk El Tayeb, a Lebanese association that promotes traditional food, trained Soufra’s cooks on food presentation, packaging and marketing to help them appeal to a wider market.

Soon Shaar and her team realised that, for the business to become sustainable, they had to expand beyond providing catering services and so they decided to operate a food truck.

“This is when the real struggle started,” Shaar said. “As Palestinian refugees in Lebanon it is not easy for us to work. Being a Palestinian NGO, we could not engage in any profit-making endeavour and we had to establish a company with Lebanese partners. Until we could navigate all the hassles of Lebanon’s complex bureaucracy it took us more than two years to get the permit to buy, set up and operate the food truck.”

With the food truck, Soufra participated in fairs across the country. “But every time we want to take the food truck outside the camp, we need to get the permission of the municipality where we would be operating. It is a continuous struggle,” Shaar said.

“Soufra,” the documentary, details Shaar’s perseverance to overcome the obstacles she faced to get the legal documents for the food truck. The film was screened in Beirut in March with Sarandon, film director Thomas Morgan and actor Ben Stiller, who is a UN refugee agency goodwill ambassador and co-chair with Sarandon of the organisation Artists for Peace and Justice, on hand.

Shaar said she hopes the film, which portrays the harsh living conditions in the camp, gains sympathy for Palestinian refugees and improves how they are perceived in Lebanon and abroad.

Soufra is catering for private companies and operating at public events such as Beirut’s Saturday Souk El Tayeb farmers’ market, in addition to making the rounds in the food truck offering traditional Palestinian dishes such as musakhan (a chicken-stuffed pastry), dolma (stuffed grape leaves) and frikeh flower (a wrap filled with wheat grains and chicken).

To promote their dishes, the Soufra team produced a cookbook that includes recipes used in their catering and food truck.

The project helped empower the women and gave them hope while increasing acceptance of women working outside the home, Shaar said.

Ghada Masriyeh, a mother of four in her 60s who has four grandchildren, had never worked outside her home until she joined Soufra.

“I wanted to work and feel productive and help my family financially. For the first time in my life I do something that is worthwhile for me personally and at the same time I’m having fun. It is good for your morale,” she said.

A mix of flavours. A Palestinian refugee prepares dishes at the Soufra kitchen in Bourj al-Barajneh camp in Beirut.        (Courtesy of Soufra)
A mix of flavours. A Palestinian refugee prepares dishes at the Soufra kitchen in Bourj al-Barajneh camp in Beirut. (Courtesy of Soufra)
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