As a banking executive, Nabil Attar was a frequent business class flyer, heading to Europe so often his family had rolling visas. But his last trip was dramatically different — it was aboard a packed refugee boat that barely survived its Mediterranean crossing.
Today, Attar is back in business — not crunching numbers in his native Syria, but stirring up potfuls of lentil soup and hummus at a newly opened Paris restaurant.
“In Damascus, I had this dream” to be a professional chef, Attar said. “But when you have a very good job, it’s hard to change your life. So, I arrived here with zero. I thought, ‘Why not follow my dream?’”
Launched by a pair of epicureans with a mission, the month-old La Residence restaurant is the latest addition to a broader scheme to showcase the talents of refugee chefs and help them better integrate into their adopted countries.
Known as the Refugee Food Festival, the scheme has already been rolled out in more than a dozen European cities, with support from the U.N. Refugee Agency, UNHCR. Now for the first time, it will cross the Atlantic in June, making its debut in New York and San Francisco.
“Food is a powerful medium to connect people — everyone is making it all over the world,” said Marine Mandrila, who founded the new restaurant and the festival with her partner, Louis Martin. “It’s something that gathers people and also tells our intimate story, of where we come from.”
There is also a practical element, she added. In food-loving France, there are thousands of restaurant job vacancies.
Hardening laws and attitudes
The refugee food movement comes amid hardening laws and attitudes toward asylum-seekers in Europe.
From Italy to Poland, anti-immigrant parties are surging, and xenophobic discourse is on the rise — even as the number of asylum seekers crossing the Mediterranean has actually plummeted over two years.
The falling figures do not exist everywhere.
In France, the centrist government of President Emmanuel Macron has proposed legislation that would toughen immigration and asylum laws, after the country registered a record 100,000 asylum seekers in 2017. While the government argues the measures will speed up processing of asylum claims and make it easier for minors to seek refuge, rights groups denounce the measures as overly repressive.
“We need to change the way we look at refugees,” Mandrila said, arguing for citizen action to help turn the tables. “To stop seeing them as a danger, but welcome them with dignity and kindness, because we could all become refugees at some point in our lives.”
A perilous journey
Attar’s wife and children flew out of Damascus in 2015, making their way to the central French city of Orleans.
He remained in Beirut, overseeing the handover of his banking job. By the time he was ready to follow them, his French visa had expired.
So, he joined the wave of migrants crossing the Mediterranean via Turkey. The first vessel he boarded was so full, he fell into the water, barely making it back to shore alive. A few days later, he tried again, this time successfully. From Greece, he slowly made his way across Europe, surprising his family at an Orleans supermarket.
“We began to learn French as soon as we arrived,” Attar recalled. “We knew that was the only way to succeed in France.”
After a year, Attar landed a job working for a car company. Today, the family has moved from a one-room studio to a small house with a garden. His wife is earning a master’s degree in business. His two children are in French schools.
Last year, he began working at the Refugee Food Festival. When La Residence restaurant opened, he became its first chef.
“I hope that all refugees will do like I did,” Attar said. “They will not sit down. Every day, they have to do their maximum to prove they can succeed again.”
Don’t blame Europe
A new report by the Carnegie Institute finds Europe woefully unprepared to manage a new migration surge, which it said will likely happen.
Nationalist measures and identity politics are not only eroding the 26-nation, border-free Schengen zone, the report said, but are also posing roadblocks in establishing effective asylum and migration policies.
But Attar is more conciliatory.
“We cannot blame Europe for closing doors,” he said. “We have to blame those who created the problems.”
Later this month, a new chef will be taking over at La Residence. Middle East hummus will be traded for Georgian cuisine.
But Orleans will be getting its first, top-quality Syrian restaurant. Attar is putting the final touches on an old dream. He is already passing out business cards for Narenj, whose name evokes the bitter oranges of his former life.
“I’m going to propose new recipes with a French presentation,” he said, “but saving the old, authentic flavors of Damascus.”
“Food is a powerful medium to connect people — everyone is making it all over the world,” said Marine Mandrila, who founded the new restaurant and the festival with her partner, Martin. “It’s something that gathers people and also tells our intimate story, of where we come from.”