The Belgian catering service whipping up a recipe for refugee success
Toni Waterman in Brussels
Europe;Brussels, Belgium


A steaming pot of rice clouded Ahlam Al Khatib's face, her skilled hands tipping it at just the right angle so not a single grain spilled. She has spent most of her life in the kitchen – first in Syria, where she cooked solely for her family, and now in Belgium, where she still cooks at home, but for the first time in her life, also in a restaurant. 

"I didn't believe it at first," she said. "I thought it would just be for a few days." 

But nearly five years later, she remains one of the chefs at From Syria with Love, a catering restaurant in Antwerp. She is one of four refugee women running the kitchen. Some, like Ahlam, had never worked in the formal sector before, but all are now financial providers for their families.



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"When a woman gets financial independence, it's not the financial independence that she gains, but it's the independence," said Yara Al Adib, Ahlam's boss and founder of From Syria with Love. "It's the feeling that I can give back to society or back to my small community as much as any man can."

Before working at the restaurant, Alham and her family survived solely on government aid. But at least they were safe. The months before were harrowing. They fled Homs, Syria amid war and a crashing economy and settled in a refugee camp in Turkey. But after her oldest son died in an accident, it became unbearable.


Alham, center, with friends and family before coming to Europe.

Alham, center, with friends and family before coming to Europe.


Eight months pregnant and with three children in tow, Ahlam embarked on the treacherous and final leg of a 20-day journey, crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece. 

"I had a few small bags with me – clothes, paperwork – but when the boat started taking on water, we were told to throw everything overboard. So we arrived with only the clothes on our backs," she recounted with tears in her eyes. 

Working at From Syria with Love has been a lifeline, not just financially, but also emotionally. 

"The best thing is that my kids look up to me now and they ask for things because they know I make money. And I feel very proud that I can give that to them," she said.


All the women who work in the kitchen of From Syria with Love in Antwerp, Belgium were refugees.

All the women who work in the kitchen of From Syria with Love in Antwerp, Belgium were refugees.


From cravings to female empowerment 

Female empowerment wasn't exactly on Yara's mind when we cooked up the idea of opening a Syrian restaurant back in 2016. A Syrian migrant herself, she was desperately missing the smells and flavors of home. 

"I never knew the great impact it would create on the women," she said. "Many women struggle to find their voice and their independence. So I thought it would be great if I could help the women who are struggling with that – to use their voice as cooking to speak up." 

Empowering refugee women became even more urgent for Yara after the 2016 Brussels terrorist attacks that left 32 people dead. She was struck by an interview with one of the perpetrator's mothers, who spoke about her inability to control her son. 

"It kind of hit me. I'm like, 'oh, my God. We could also be like this, Syrian migrants now in Belgium, we could also have kids who turn out to be terrorists because the mother cannot kind of show impact in the home,'" she said. "So I thought to myself, 'this is the moment to really empower these mothers because if a mother is empowered, she can empower her son.'" 

The four women Yara employs are part of the more than 1 million refugees who streamed into Europe in 2015 and the years following. Many are now resettled and integrated into society. 

While the fate of Syrian refugees has largely faded into the background in recent years, the thorny issue of migration is once again front and center in Europe as tens of thousands flee Taliban rule in Afghanistan. Hundreds have already arrived here in Belgium. Among them women and children, who are often the most vulnerable. 

"There is always a fear that women will be left behind," said Yara. "I realize that the key to integration is acceptance of that person and where they come from and also knowledge of their own background. In the end, all humans just want to be seen."

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