Everyone needs to Eat! – sustainable empowerment in the camps

Soufra (The Dining Table) premiered in Africa and Asia this week and throughout September gala showings will take place around the world. This movie is about a group of women, led by Mariam Al Shaar who live in a refugee camp, South of Beirut, Lebanon, they are all refugees from Palestine, Syria and Iraq. The movie is in Arabic with English sub-titles.

Mariam has pulled the women of this camp together to do what has never been done before. They started with a small kitchen from a micro-loan. With nearly insurmountable political odds against them– they look to start the first refugee food truck. Their journey is one of many ups and downs but it is the community that is built, their sense of hope and how they see themselves that makes this a moving, touching film about their journey. Not only did they hit the big time with their catering company which got its big break feeding school children and then onto the super rich, but they went onto produce a cook book which has taken the world by storm.

This cookbook and the film also titled Soufra, by Rebelhouse Group, accompanies Mariam Shaar on her journey of empowerment by developing a thriving business that employs the incredible women of the Burj el-Barajneh refugee camp

Mariam was born in the Burj el-Barajneh camp in the 1970s, almost three decades after her grandmother arrived as the Palestinian refugee crisis began. Like all refugees, her family was forbidden from holding most jobs, lacked documentation to leave the country legally, and did not have the financial means to move outside the camp. So they stayed. Mariam has spent her entire life in the camp, surviving the Lebanese Civil War and a series of other brutal conflicts, including the “war of the camps.”

Driven by a relentless desire to make life in the camp better, she dedicated herself to improving not only her own life but also the lives of those around her.

Everyone needs to eat!  With seed funding and business planning support from Alfanar venture philanthropy, Soufra catering was born in 2013. Like any start-up, it went through many iterations. Different names, logos, and business plans were tested. Mariam partnered with Souk El Tayeb, a leading social enterprise in Lebanon, on training and branding. The idea was to revive traditional Palestinian dishes and offer them to the Beirut market. The dishes were met with huge acclaim. But despite the positive reviews, not enough catering orders were coming in. In a brainstorming session with the women of Soufra and its stakeholders, the idea of a food truck was hatched, and with it a whole new journey began!

In 2015, social justice filmmaker Thomas Morgan heard about Alfanar’s work with Soufra. He came to Lebanon to meet Mariam, and ended up dedicating two years of his life to filming her story and helping turn her vision into reality. With the help of a Kickstarter campaign, the Soufra women raised more than enough money to launch the first-ever refugee food truck. In so doing, they made it possible to take their food and their business to customers all over Lebanon, and began providing more and more jobs for women inside the camp.

Not only does this cookbook share some of the most treasured recipes that changed the lives of the Soufra women, but it also will give back to the families at the camp. The women of Soufra, through WPA, are full partners in the publication of this book. They will share equally in proceeds from its sales, which will contribute to the ongoing development of the camp’s Children’s Center and to building a school for the children in the camp.

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