Refugee Food Festival London: How cooking in pop-ups helped Majeda Khoury raise awareness for Syria

Edwina Langley

“In my home country, I used to express my feelings through cooking. Every time I wanted to say to anyone ‘I love you’ or ‘I care about you’ I invited him or her to dinner or lunch, and I cooked for them,” says human rights activist and Syrian refugee, Majeda Khoury.

“I am not a cook. I am not a chef. But I believe that food can bring people together and create a positive environment to listen. When you share food, you can share love. So that's why, when I came to this country, I used this skill.”

Yesterday, as part of London's Refugee Food Festival, Khoury cooked at a Syrian Supper Club at Mercato Metropolitano in Elephant & Castle. In partnership with MM's executive chef Gabriele Bagni, she served up a mouth-watering Syrian-Italian fusion menu, to raise awareness for the plight of refugees across the world, and those from Syria in particular.

“A refugee is a person who has a life, who has a house, and who has friends and families,” says Khoury. “War or bad circumstances in their countries force them to leave and live in other countries... They just want an opportunity to use the skills they already have, to start a new life, until they have the chance to go back to their country.”

It is a wish Khoury knows all too well. She was forced to leave Syria in 2016 over fears her work as a social worker had put her family in danger. She fled to Lebanon, leaving her two sons – then, just 13 and 16 – with her husband in Damascus.

“It was very hard to leave them,” she says. "Every day, I said 'Tomorrow. I will go back'. But it didn’t happen.”

In her capacity as a human right's activist, she travelled to the UK to attend a fellowship. Whilst here, she discovered it would be unsafe for her to return to Lebanon, so she sought asylum and was later awarded refugee status.

Alone in a city without family, friends or even knowledge of the language, Khoury turned to cooking. “Cooking classes offered me a very good opportunity to meet people. I did a lot of presentations to introduce Syria, and what was happening in Syria. People liked Syrian food, so later I improved my skills more.”

She adds, “This was [also] a great opportunity to improve my language to integrate in this society.”

She started doing supper clubs and pop-ups, discovering the capital very much had an appetite for Syrian cuisine. A year later, her two sons were able to join her.

Now she has set up The Syrian Sunflower, a catering business which also offers Syrian cooking lessons. And last tonight, she demonstrated her skills, cooking dishes in homage to her homeland, whilst spreading an important and urgent message.

“It is a very bad situation right now because they are bombing civilians in Idlib in north Syria,” she says. “This is my message – I am wearing a t-shirt with 'Save Idlib from bombing'. A lot of children have died in the last 15 days, and nobody can stop it. The targets were hospitals. We need everyone to stand for Syria.”

Speaking after the supper, Andrea Rasca, founder and chief executive dreamer of Mercato Metropolitano, said: “Mercato Metropolitano is immensely proud to support refugees and to be able to provide them with much needed education, resources, facilities, connections and economic opportunities.

“Across cultures, food is about coming together, sharing and community – which is what we are passionate about at MM. Last night’s Supper Club was delicious and educational, and we’d like to thank Majeda for a wonderful evening – it is also important to restate that MM is neutral, apolitical and open to everyone.”

For more information on the Refugee Food Festival, click here.