"In Syrian culture, we can't make any journey without first planning the food," begins Imad Alarnab. "If you make a plan to go to the cinema, you plan what you'll eat. If you make a plan to visit your mother, you know when you're going to eat. There's no going out without eating something."But when Alarnab set out from Damascus in July 2015 to make the dangerous journey across Europe that so many refugees and asylum seekers have attempted since the Syrian conflict started, it wasn't one you could plan the food for.
Alarnab owned two successful restaurants and several juice bars in Damascus and the surrounding area before he became a refugee. In the 14 months since he arrived in the UK, he's worked several jobs including at a hand car wash and as a car salesman. But thanks to the Unicef NEXTGeneration project, which helps Syrian families get back on their feet, tonight Alarnab is in the kitchen once again, running a pop-up restaurant in East London."It's more than dinner," he says. "What we're going to do is recreate how we serve food in our homes. In Syria, we don't do plates. We don't ask, 'What do you want to eat?' We just serve lots of food and you can eat whatever you like, whenever you like. It's like family."
Alarnab has worked professionally in restaurants since 2000, but it was his mother who showed him how to cook."She was always calling me into the kitchen and giving me small jobs to do, like filling the boureki. She used to say that all of life is in your stomach."But by the time Alarnab reached Calais, he weighed only 90 kilos."There were many places on the journey when I thought I wasn't going to make it. There were times when I thought, this is the end. But I wanted to see my daughters again, so I did reckless things trying to hang on under lorries. I was desperate but I had no other way."Alarnab followed the route many of us are now familiar with from Syria to Lebanon, then up into Turkey, across Greece and through Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Austria, Germany, and France until he reached Calais. On the way, when he had the chance, he'd start cooking.
"I don't know if I'm lucky or if it's always like this, but I felt like I was surrounded by angels all the way from Greece to here. In Serbia, we had a few hours to cook and we had a proper kitchen," he says. "And I was in Calais for 64 days so I had to cook, and I did."He remembers how a British Pakistani volunteer came over the Channel and gave him a small stove and gas canisters, so that he could cook for himself and 14 other friends.
"We did stews, we went fishing and cooked our catch. Sometimes I cooked three times a day. It was nice to have the chance to cook."It's not often that you hear the experience of refugees sleeping on the streets of Calais described as "nice" but for Alarnab, food was a way of making friends, and a source of joy in the middle of a desperate journey."In the first ten days, I tried 13 times to get across," he says. "I had a conversation with a French asylum officer who asked me why I didn't claim asylum there. I told her that if she could promise my family would be able to join me after three months, then I'd apply right then and there. She told me it would be eight months just to sort my paperwork and then another eight to get my family. My restaurant in Sayyidah Zaynab was destroyed in six days. So, I had to keep trying to get to the UK. I wanted to see my family again."
One of the dishes Alarnab cooked regularly on his camping stove in Calais was ful medames, a dish made with fava beans in oil, spices, and whatever vegetables you have to hand.
"I made it with yogurt, tahini, onion, tomato, and garlic. Mix it together and it's beautiful," says Alarnab. "There was this British Lebanese guy who came over quite regularly who we invited to eat with us. After he ate the ful, he said, 'Whatever you want, I'll bring it for you.' We asked for coffee! It was the only thing. It's very strong, stronger than Turkish coffee. He brought us tonnes of it."In spite of the hardship, Alarnab seems almost to have fond memories of his cooking in Calais."It was brilliant to cook there," he says. "And it's going to be brilliant to do it here in a proper kitchen."In Calais, Alarnab only had one knife rather than several in case anyone suspected him of being dangerous, so they broke the vegetables up by hand to cook them. Tonight's pop-up is hosted by Appear Here, with food covered by The Hampstead Kitchen. Alarnab will also have a couple of people working alongside him in the kitchen.Still for Alarnab, cooking is very much a labour of love and a gift to the community.
"I wanted to cook Syrian food for non-Syrian people. A lot of effort goes into this food. For example, I'm serving falafel but you can't make falafel in a couple of hours. It takes two or three days. The tabakh rohoo, a vegetable and tamarind stew, takes at least eight hours to make just because of how long it takes to process the tamarind. The effort we put in is a way of life for us."
Luckily, coming to London hasn't restricted what Alarnab is able to cook."The city has such a global culture," he says. "Everyone from everywhere is here! Park Royal is like Beirut so I can get most ingredients and even some Syrian made things."Alarnab's family are now with him, and he's hopeful that the pop-up will turn into something more permanent.
"I think if we manage to do something good for our lives, those actions will affect the community. I want people to realise we can be good neighbours. I want them to think, 'I like their food' and for that to change their minds about us."If the saying is true—that the way to a person's heart is through their stomach—then Alarnab is certain, just as he did with so many in his home city of Damascus and on his journey across Europe, to win us over.