Rolling fresh grape leaves by her hands, Manal wore her white apron while preparing a variety of dishes Friday afternoon at the Burj al-Barajneh Palestinian refugee camp. A 38-year-old Palestinian mother, she said that she learned how to cook many recipes that originated from her parent’s village as a child.
“My mother taught me how to cook many things,” she told The Daily Star. “I’m very happy to be able to share our food with others and to have made many friends.”
Manal is one of 13 women running a catering service from Burj-al-Barajneh camp – a 67-year-old enclave first established to shelter Palestinians displaced during the creation of Israel. Supported by Al-Fanar and the Woman’s Program Association, their business has offered dignified employment to a handful of women who are trying to overcome the obstacles that Palestinians face in Lebanon.
The staff has also launched a Kickstarter campaign to purchase a food truck that would enable them to market their goods outside Burj al-Barajneh. Though stateless and marginalized, these women are motivated to better their community by making enough money to open a nursery in the camp.
Mariam Shaar, a social worker with the Woman’s Program Association, said that the idea for the catering service was born after U.N. Relief and Works Agency collected the results of an assessment that the agency had conducted two years ago.
“The results of the assessment revealed that many women were interested in using their cooking skills to make an income for their families,” she said.
“They wanted to work to support their husbands. They also wanted a reason to get out of the house since many women are dissuaded from leaving their household.”
Palestinians in Lebanon live in abject poverty, constituting the poorest population of their people in the Middle East. Prohibited from practicing over 25 high-skilled professions in Lebanon, most families live on less than $6 a day, making them completely depended on aid agencies to survive.
Split governance in the camp has also restricted the mobility of women, as many are reluctant to leave their household in fear of violence and harassment. And while the kitchen once represented a space of confinement, for these women, it has now become a source of empowerment and autonomy.
Samar, another cook with the catering service, said that the business has helped many women learn how to depend on themselves in their community.
“Working here hasn’t prohibited me from fulfilling my responsibilities at home,” she said, while kneading a bundle of white flower on the table in front of her. “The great thing about this community is that it allows women to learn to do things on our own. We don’t always have to rely on our husbands.”
Relying on a man isn’t even an option for numerous women in the camp, since many suffer from high rates of unemployment, drug abuse and depression. Mariam further noted that some of the women working in their catering business were young widows who have been forced to tend to their families, alone.
“Not only has this center enabled some vulnerable women to earn an income for their families, but it’s also provided them with a support network. The staff in this center even have their own WhatsApp group. They have become a community,” Mariam said.
As of today, the staff has yet to purchase a food truck, but the women have compensated by setting up stands in Downtown Beirut, Hamra or Ashrafieh on every second Saturday. Mariam said that the women have relished the experience of traveling to districts that they never had a reason to visit before.
“I thought that they would be intimidated to leave Burj al-Barajneh, but they were so excited to travel to other areas in Beirut. I never imagined that they would be so eager to sell their products around the city.”
In any case, the pride of their efforts remains confined in a small kitchen at the Woman’s Program Association center in Burj al-Barajneh. It is here where spices such as thyme, zaatar and olive oil have become the pillars to a livelihood. Yet more importantly, it also where a community of women has mobilized to support each other.
“I met all of the women in this center through this kitchen,” Samar said, with a smile. “It benefits us and our families to be here.”