Syrian woman’s project teaches refugee chefs

The brainchild of Joanna Ibrahim, Open Taste has catered to 13 immigrant families. Now, the project’s seeking funds to pay for a space of its own and to support more people.

Thais Sousa

São Paulo – Living as a refugee in São Paulo for four years now, Joanna Ibrahim of Syria created and runs Open Taste, a project designed to provide training to refugees and immigrants in Brazil. Since April 2018, the project has been catering to non-Brazilians who turn to food for their livelihood.

“I’m a refugee too. When I got here, I wanted to build a website for myself, to sell something, and then I felt the need to teach other people. After a year and a half here, I’d learned a bit of Portuguese and I began helping Syrian families by translating whatever I could. My idea is to create a community that will support itself. I’ll ask them ‘Where do you want to be?’ and then I’ll tell them, ‘Then you must take steps 1, 2, 3 and 4. I can offer you 1 and 2. I can connect you with other people, and then it’s up to you to go after it. They’ll ask me how come I speak Portuguese well. When I first I got here I couldn’t speak a word,” said Ibrahim, who learned through persistence and practicing by watching her favorite series, like Friends, in Portuguese.

Back in Syria, Ibrahim used to live in the capital Damascus. “I come from a Family of entrepreneurs and I say that with pride! I had never worked with food before, but I have uncles who are restaurant managers, my brother is a chef. I ended up hearing about it and I lived with it every day, but I had no clue this would come in handy someday,” she said. Now, she relies on support from volunteer group Base Colaborativa, which helps with the planning for small projects.

Open Taste started out as the House of Food got rented out to create a shared restaurant where refugees could cook and sell the food, but now the will to innovate has come up. “We felt the need to have our own space and to think about these people’s careers. It’s not just about going out there and selling. The idea is to have the program the whole year round, so they can get to work and have some real-life experience, so they can think about a career rather than just making a sale today,” explained Ibrahim.

Since its creation, the project supported 13 refugee families that works selling food, including people from Arab countries such as Syria, Palestine and Iraq. The idea is to start a training program called “Empowerment Through the Refugee Experience,” which is going to have long-term strategies in adequate location. “We need a place to make the career program happen, starting with the training. When we saw we had no resources to continue, we launched a crowdfunding and we’ve already reached BRL 6,000 (USD 1,500) through the site and other BRL 20,000 (USD 5,000) otherwise. We need to reach our BRL 100,000 (USD 25,000) goal to make our dream come true,” said Ibrahim.

She does the project marketing to attract customers for the refugees but also helps in other tasks. “Usually man and wife work together, buy the ingredients. But when it is necessary, I also volunteer, serve the customers and have even come into the kitchen to cut food. We saw that it is really important to think about the person, their career,” she told.

Learn a little about the project through the testimonials of Joanna and other participants.

Translated by Gabriel Pomerancblum & Guilherme Miranda

Press Release

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