The Syrian refugees who fled war now cooking their way into the hearts of a Welsh community
‘Everyone in this country has embraced us, stood by us and given us love and security’
Latifa said cooking for the community was her way of saying thank you for welcoming them
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Worlds away from the war-ravaged streets and scorching heat of Damascus, the capital of Syria, is the historic seaside town of Aberystwyth in mid-Wales.
But these two worlds have come together after a number of refugee families from Syria moved to Ceredigion in recent years.
One of those incomers has been cooking baklava – a sweet pastry with chopped nuts and honey, and Yalengy – a traditional dish made up of stuffed vine leaves.
It’s something 32-year-old Latifa learned when she lived in Syria.
Making meals and serving food to her family and friends was how she showed people that she loved and appreciated them.
“We had family and friends. We used to visit each other and we were very happy before the war. But then we had to leave our country,” said Latifa of her life in Syria.
After fleeing the conflict, Latifa found her new home in Ceredigion with the help of the British Red Cross under the Syrian Resettlement Scheme.
She and her family are among thousands of families who have resettled in the UK under the scheme since 2015 – the project’s aim is to bring 20,000 refugees into the country by the end of 2020.
Local authorities all around Wales signed up to welcome Syrian families and so far over a thousand have made a home for themselves here.
Ceredigion County Council has welcomed refugees into the county since 2015 and in November, 2019, had surpassed its target of 50 by homing 54 individuals in the area fleeing the Syrian conflict.
Latifa arrived in Wales in 2016 to make a new life for herself in a country she’d never heard of: “I didn’t know anything about Wales before but when we were told that we were coming to Wales I looked it up. I saw pictures of Wales and read about it and I loved it before we came. When we arrived we felt welcomed by the people in Wales.”
The 32-year-old mum said the people of Ceredigion and Wales had welcomed her family in with open arms and given them a sense of peace after living through the heartbreak of war.
“The people of this country nurtured us with kindness, love and compassion. They deserve respect and love from us. Their warm smiles gave us hope, love and a sense of peace and security.
“We felt that they are our family and this country is our second home.”
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Through her love of cooking, Latifa met two Syrian women named Rula and Khetam and bonded after talking about flavours from their home towns in Syria.
The women then decided to start their own business cooking authentic, traditional Syrian cuisine in a bid to integrate into the local community and create a cultural exchange.
Called the ‘Syrian Dinner Project’ it was a way to fuse the two cultures, teach the community about their home country and to thank locals for welcoming them.
The ladies donated over 100 meals to NHS staff to show their gratitude during the pandemic (Image: Syrian Dinner Project)
“At first we started providing food for small occasions then we ventured and tried a big event. This first event was in a restaurant in Aberystwyth called Medina. We hosted 120 people and fell in love with the restaurant and wished that one day we would have one like it in the future,” said a spokeswoman for the project.
“When we cooked there for the first time, we were elated and felt that our dreams were coming true. Everything was new to us. We were scared but we wanted to cook to the best of our ability to show our love to the community.
“We cook our meals with love and passion. Through our cooking, we are trying to transfer our love to the community. We are trying to convey our pure and loving heart to people through our food,” the three project co-founders add.
In recent weeks, the women have also been donating hundreds of meals to NHS staff at Bronglais Hospital as a thank you for the hard work that they are doing during the Covid-19 pandemic, Latifa says: “The NHS staff deserve a lot and we are showing them that we are grateful to all their hard work.”