Personal chef to Yasser Arafat cooks up a new life in Toronto

Yasser Arafat’s former personal chef has a problem.

Ashraf Qadouri Hussin, who served PLO chief Arafat his meals in the years before his death, has been living and working in Canada for the past 19 months as a refugee claimant.

But his four children are still in Egypt living with their grandmother – Hussin’s mother. They have no rights there, and so have not been going to school the last two years.

And it could be a while yet before Hussin attains landed immigrant status in Canada and can bring his kids here. In the meantime they live in a stateless limbo away from their father, unwelcome in Egypt and unable to go back to their native Gaza.

And it gets worse. The kids’ grandmother is sick and is not expected to live much longer;upon her death the children – who range in age from six to 12 – will be homeless.

“Then they have to go back to Gaza and it’s going to be another problem, because they cannot even go back,” said Razgar Hasan, Hussin’s Toronto immigration lawyer.

“There’s no transportation between Egypt and Gaza. You have to have a special permit to leave Gaza and enter Egypt, and also vice versa. And especially for kids, minors, to go back to Gaza from Egypt, there are some restrictions related to that matter,” he said.

“My children are in a very dangerous situation,” said Hussin, 36, a tall, affable Gazan. “It makes me angry when I think about it.”

He doesn’t blame Canadian officials for the situation, however.

“Everybody in Canada is very helpful,” he said. “I’ve felt at home here from the moment I arrived.”

Hussin arrived in Montreal in August, 2007 from Jordan, where he’d lived and worked after leaving his job at Arafat’s Mukataa compound in Ramallah, the seat of the Palestine Liberation Organization, in 2003.

His first wife left him in Jordan, and abandoned their four children. Maybe she was afraid, Hussin conjectured.

“Life was shit in Jordan,” said Hussin. “Every couple of months the religion people – the political people, the Hamas – would call and ask me things, for information about what went on in Arafat’s office.”

But Hussin was “just a chef,” Hussin’s lawyer points out, not a high-profile figure.

“He’s not politically active with the PLO,” Hasan said. “He was just serving food to chairman Arafat.”

From 1998 to 2003 Hussin served meals in the Palestinian president’s office. He was on friendly terms with Arafat, who would occasionally compliment him on the meals he served, but that was the extent of it.

“He would say sometimes, ‘This is delicious,’ but, you know, I wasn’t his friend,” said Hussin. “We’d just say ‘Hello’ or whatever at lunch, or dinner, or breakfast.”

Arafat was on a special doctor-ordered diet, Hussin said. No fat, no red meat, no spices. Fish, cooked in salt and oil, formed a large part of Arafat’s diet. Arafat would also eat chicken breast, Egyptian whole wheat bread, diet cheese, black honey and shelled shrimp.

“We had to make sure everything was in bite-sized pieces because his hands would shake, like he had Parkinson’s,” Hussin recalled. “We’d blend everything for him.”

“Arafat was a very nervous guy,” Hussin said. “But he had charisma; scary charisma. He had a very good personality. He was a very good, human guy.”

Hussin was there during the Al-Aqsa uprising and Operation Defensive Shield, which began with an incursion into Ramallah by Israeli forces and a siege. Hussin said that for 35 days he fed some 350 people who couldn’t leave the Mukataa.

“The gas was off, sometimes the electricity, sometimes the water,” he said. “There was no bread for days. I cooked on hotplates, so sometimes I would be up all night to cook rice or pasta; 25 pounds at a time.”

Here in Canada, Hussin hopes to become executive chef at Milestones, a popular chain of restaurants, where he works, and he wants someday to produce a book of his own recipes.

“I’m working hard here to make a good life for my children,” he said. “Everything is going so well. All I need now is to have my children back.”

Hasan, the lawyer, thinks Hussin’s refugee claim will be processed sometime this year. But then he must apply to become a landed immigrant, which could take another six months. Only then he can start the process of getting his children out of Egypt.

“All the time my children call me and cry, ‘Dad, please come take us!'” Hussin said. “It’s driving me crazy.”

Hasan said he would send a letter immediately to the immigration authorities in Montreal to try to expedite the process. But he warned that the process can be lengthy.

“I have a client who took nine years to get landed immigrant status after he was accepted as a refugee,” he said. “And he was a Palestinian too.”

Filed by Tim Burden