Photograph by Jordan Pix/Getty Images
Read Caption
A Syrian refugee woman offers some sweets to the guests in the Al-Azraq camp for Syrian refugees in Al-Azraq, Jordan.
Photograph by Jordan Pix/Getty Images
The Plate

Syrian Refugees Find Comfort, Humanity in the Ritual of Cooking

Before fleeing his hometown in Northern Syria, Ghalib* sat down to enjoy one final home-cooked meal: a chicken, potato, and tomato dish known as galaya. Ghalib, in his early twenties, now lives as a refugee in Jordan, where he works illegally as a construction worker and a doorman.

In Syria, Ghalib had managed to temporarily avoid trouble during the conflict by serving in Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian Army. That all changed when one night, when Ghalib, from his watch post, saw a stranger take out a knife and kill a local woman. Ghalib shot and killed the man. But it turned out the man Ghalib shot was a higher-up in the army, and Ghalib became a target. Realizing this, he immediately went home and prepared to leave. He gathered his dog and his gun and headed south, joining the now four million Syrians thus far displaced by the war. But before he left, he finished his galaya.

Ghalib’s story is one of many in Cooking a Home: A collection of the recipes and stories of Syrian refugees, which came out in February. The book’s author, Pilar Puig Cortada, a cultural heritage studies student, says of all the stories she collected during her time in the refugee camps in Jordan last summer, this one stands out to her. Perhaps it is because Ghalib’s story concisely illustrates her purpose for writing her book. “I focused on food because it is something that we all share,” Cortada says. “I think that it is something very human and something we can all understand.”

In the refugee camps and informal settlements scattered across Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and other parts of North Africa, little about residents’ daily routines resembles that of their pre-war lives. Living in tents, on dirt-covered floors, torn away from family and home, it can be easy to forget who you once were. But for many refugees, food offers a comforting connection to their homeland.

When the conflict first displaced Syrians in 2011, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) provided those eligible with “dry” foods like rice, bulgar, and canned goods. But as refugees began to request more variety, WFP replaced rations with cash or e-vouchers delivered by text message. The voucher program lets Syrians select and purchase ingredients at designated markets in their camps or hosting communities, and gives them a sense of agency that’s often elusive in their daily lives.

And cooking offers more than a taste of home for many—its benefits extend into other realms of life. “Food preparation and consumption offer a space and a time for the formation of family and friendly ties, the enactment of comforting rituals, the expression of cultural identities,” Cortada says. “Cooking and eating aren’t the whole story. The process begins with the collection of raw materials, at the grocer or in the garden–and only finishes after the meal, with the scrubbing of empty dishes.”

Indeed, cooking in this context can become an act of reminiscence, a link to one’s personal history and that of one’s country. But perhaps most of all, Cortada explains, the ability to cook in these camps mitigates refugees’ biggest complaint: sheer boredom. “In refugee camps, there’s not very much to do. Cooking your own food gives structure to your day, it gives control over your life,” she says. Shopping at the market becomes a social activity, preparing ingredients a way to keep the past alive in the present, and enjoying a meal a source of conversation and community.

However, even those receiving food vouchers struggle to get by. Syrian refugees cannot legally work in Jordan or Lebanon, and still struggle to find work in other countries due to the language barrier. Moreover, in order to qualify for WFP aid, families must be unable to meet basic food needs on their own. Many rely solely on vouchers for income. Vouchers only provide the minimum amount for survival, and can often fall short of standards accustomed to at home in Syria. As a consequence, food insecurity results in fewer meals per day, and even pulls children out of school.

The situation went from bad to worse on July 1, when WFP had to decrease funds to the 1.6 million refugees still enrolled in the program (the second of two cuts in half a year). In Lebanon, the country where WFP supports the most people, refugees will now receive $13.50 each month–half of the program’s original allowance. What’s more, insufficient funding could spell the end of the voucher program all together, which threatens to be entirely suspended by September unless WFP receives an additional $139 million.

When Cortada first arrived in Amman, she was unsure of what direction her research would take. “When I got there and started talking to Syrian refugees, I realized that food is kind of an international language,” she says. She set out to show that even those without a permanent home have the right to speak it.

Ghalib’s Galaya

Serves 4

4 Medium-sized potatoes

500g (about 1 lb.) of tomatoes

4 chicken thighs

Olive oil

1 big onion

3 cloves of garlic

Pour abundant olive oil in a big pan and set over medium heat. Cut the potatoes into small cubes and chop the tomato, onion and garlic to desired size. When the oil is very hot, add the potatoes and fry until golden. Then, add the tomato, the onion and the chopped up garlic.

Bone the chicken thighs and fry them in a separate pan, also with abundant olive oil (Ghalib likes his food with a lot of olive oil). When they are ready, set the chicken thighs aside.

After around twenty minutes, add the chicken to the big pan, with the potatoes, tomatoes and onion. Let the ingredients cook for five minutes all together, and: voilà.

It is to be eaten with Arabic bread and without cutlery.

* “Ghalib” is a pseudonym.

Victoria Sgarro is an art research intern at National Geographic. You can find her on Twitter @trsgarro.