Syrian migrants running The Newcomer Kitchen - making authentic levantine dishes to make a living

Syrian migrant stars of food and film scene

"Shway Shway" follows the team behind The Newcomer Kitchen as they introduce themselves to Toronto by sharing delicious Syrian meals

There are few experiences as universal as the feeling of elation that comes from eating a warm, home-cooked meal. For a local group of recently settled Syrian women that feeling allowed them to transcend cultural and linguistic barriers to create a community united by food. Now the women are working towards funding their own documentary which tells the story of how they overcame their refugee status and became Canadian icons.

“Shway Shway” -a Syrian slang term meaning little by little- is the title of the upcoming documentary that follows the women that run The Newcomer Kitchen, a meal preparation service hosted by The Depanneur every Thursday evening.  Throughout December the team raised nearly $30,000 via INDIEGOGO.  They now eagerly await the release of their film once post production wraps in the new year.

“Where interesting food things happen”

Len Senater is the owner of the little culinary workshop that is the Depanneur. Named after the Quebec corner-stores that it closely resembles, Depanneur is distinctly not a restaurant, as Senater is quick to point out.

“It’s so much more. If it were just about cooking food and making money, we’d have hired the best Middle Eastern chefs in Toronto, started catering and ended it there,” he said. “But that would have created two jobs for people who already have that opportunity, now we have the chance bring in so many more and give them a dignified wage.”

The “place where interesting food things happen” as its logo proclaims, is a space for cooks of any calibre to gather and share their finest dishes of every cuisine. Meals are prepared en masse through the day, then sold online for pick-up or delivery in the evening.

Senater came up with the idea for The Newcomer Kitchen when he heard that hundreds of Syrian women were in hotel rooms with nothing to do. While husbands worked and children attended school the household matriarchs were left alone with no real way to integrate into their communities.

With Depanneur’s core philosophy in mind, Senater chose to open the  doors of his kitchen. This gave the migrants a place to cook, learn English, and make their own money. It was a decision that he calls “a no-brainer.”

“I love all of Canada, and Winnipeg is beautiful… but also very cold”

Nadima Kinjo is among the roughly 60 women that keep The Kitchen running each week. She echoed Senater’s sentiment in explaining that her job is so much more than just working in any other restaurant. To her, the Depanneur  embodies a culture and lifestyle that isn’t found in smaller cities.

Kinjo and her family were first brought to Toronto by their settlement agency in February of 2016, but their stay was short lived and they were later relocated to Winnipeg. Kinjo quickly realized that Winnipeg lacked the opportunities -through employment, and otherwise- that Toronto offered to immigrant women looking to integrate more effectively. Her family asked to return to Toronto to work. After relocating a second time, Kinjo had a friend in Toronto introduce her to The Newcomer Kitchen.

“I feel like I have a family here. Now I have the confidence to go out and use these skills on my own,” Kinjo said.

Familiar faces

“Shway Shway” will be the first time that the newcomers are appearing in a feature-length production. They may be strangers in the documentary film scene for now, but over the past year each of the members became familiar with the local news media.

The work done in The Kitchen has garnered praise from The Toronto Star, The New York Times, and even Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

The team even recently appeared in Chevrolet Canada’s “The Canadian Dream” ad campaign.

Cara Benjamin-Pace is the project director in charge of The Newcomer Kitchen. She was in contact with Chevrolet leading up to the ad campaign but she had no idea what the other girls had in store for her once the cameras were rolling, or how many other Canadians would see her on TV.

“The girls all call me ‘Mama Cara’ and the film crew happened to arrive on Mother’s Day,” Benjamin-Pace said. “In the middle of our meal prep they suddenly cleared the table and surprised me with a Mother’s Day cake. The crew just loved that moment.”

“I wasn’t sure if that clip would end up on the cutting room floor,” she added. “Then one day I was coming out of the subway and I see my face! Me and all of the girls on a billboard in Dundas square!”

What’s next?

Although the team considers their INDIEGOGO campaign a success, there’s still a great deal of fundraising left to do. Despite raising $29,000 to pay the film editor’s wages the original goal of the campaign was $69,000. The team hoped that the excess funds would go back into The Kitchen to further support new arrivals. The Toronto Star recently reported that without an influx of government and donor support The Kitchen will be at risk of shutting down.

Donations are still being accepted through The Kitchen’s website. With the continued support of the community, the team hopes to be able to expand to over 100 members throughout 2018.