Majeda Khouri pictured for Migrateful during UK Refugee Week 2020 | Source: Twitter Migrateful
Majeda Khouri pictured for Migrateful during UK Refugee Week 2020 | Source: Twitter Migrateful

Majeda Khouri was detained in Syria for peacefully protesting the Assad regime. After her release, raids on her house prompted her to leave -- first for Lebanon and eventually the UK, where she was granted refugee status. In London, she has founded her own catering business and helps other Syrian refugee women from poorer backgrounds use their own cooking skills to earn a living in London.

Majeda Khouri bridles slightly when she is introduced as a refugee. "I like to introduce myself as a feminist and human rights activist," she says firmly, "because that is what I am." Being a refugee in the UK is something she has been "forced" to become. "It is not a choice."

"When I came here [to the UK] I was so depressed," says Khouri. "I wanted to be with my family. I had left my children for two years." At the time, her two sons were just 13 and 15. Khouri said she had done everything not to leave Syria, even after being detained for four months. The destroyed hospital of Kafr Nabl, Idlib's countryside, in Syria | Photo: ARCHIVE/EPA/YAHYA NEMAHEventually though Khouri was forced to leave for Lebanon where she continued her activism. She worked in refugee and migrant camps, trying to support the activists she had left behind in Syria. But in Lebanon she had no right to remain, and so when she was invited to speak at an academic forum in Edinburgh in 2017, it became impossible for her to return. "I had no choice but to seek asylum in the UK," says Khouri sadly.

'I just wanted to work'

Although she says she is not particularly happy in the UK, Khouri quickly found her feet. "Now I know so many people in London," she laughs, "I have friends from all over the place, I am a sociable person." Khouri moved to London and was hosted by various families while waiting for her asylum claim to be processed. "But I don't like accepting benefits," says Khouri, "I just wanted to work."

Even when she apparently had nothing, Khouri was busy with activism, volunteering and helping. In the host families, wherever she could, she would cook meals for the families and over food talk about her experiences. She also made connections with other Syrian asylum seekers, less able to cope than herself.

Since arriving in the UK, she has built up her English by listening to the radio "24 hours a day," Khouri explains. She says she even kept it on while she slept, "to perfect my accent. I wanted to speak, so that gave me the power." Soon she was using those skills to speak at seminars, events and cooking classes, become a chef, give cooking classes via the organization Migrateful, and set up her own catering business "Syrian Sunflower."

Syrian Sunflower

The sunflower represents her in more ways than one, Khouri explains. She used the image of a sunflower on her Facebook page when working as an activist in Syria. "I love the sun," she enthuses, her voice warming up, "I have a special relationship with it," then she adds wryly, "perhaps that is why I find the UK so difficult to live in." When her friends were campaigning for her release from detention, they all grew sunflowers and wrote her messages on her Facebook page saying "we are waiting for you, Syrian sunflower." So, says Khouri, "it means a lot to me."

For Khouri, food is a way to tell her story and that of her country. "When you sit down to eat, you exchange something; you share something emotional, when you talk, people listen and they hear what you say," she says. That was how the idea for cooking Syrian food in London came about. Through the dishes, Khouri explains to people what is happening in Syria. "I needed to communicate to them that the war in Syria was not about Assad versus Isis, that it was more complicated than that."

A menu under siege

At one of the first events she catered, she didn't serve up the middle eastern delights that people might have been expecting, but a thin watery gruel. It was the only dish that people could eat when their city (Ghouta) was under siege, she told the BBC at the time. The trick worked, Khouri tells InfoMigrants, remembering the evening. "We were campaigning to break this siege," says Khouri. "I thought that if people shared this food, [this experience] they would listen more."Hundreds of thousands of people have fled the violence in Syria for Germany | Photo: Picture-alliance/dpa/Ghouta Media CenterWhile they were tentatively sipping their soup, Khouri passed around a letter she had written to British parliamentarians, trying to get attention focused on what the Assad regime was doing in Syria. Coming into contact with a small taste of the realities that people were facing, many who attended the event duly wrote a letter to their MP too. "A few months later, I met one of the MPs involved in the Syrian case and he told me had received over 40 of my emails and letters from people who attended the event. I was very pleased," concludes Khouri. Syrian dishes cooked by Majeda Khouri for a Migrateful cooking class online | Source: Syrian Sunflower Facebook pageKhouri had long been dissatisfied with the regime, but she could not do much about it because her family was constantly monitored.  

"My uncle had been tortured to death about 40 years ago and the security services would come to my house all these years, they came and turned our house upside down. Not just my family, most families, that was how it was. It was a security regime," says Khouri. 

In 2011, when the peaceful revolution began in Syria, Khouri saw her chance to work for change. She began to use her status as a Christian Syrian -- generally seen as being favorable to the regime -- to smuggle bread to people, who were already experiencing food shortages, across checkpoints.

Smuggling bread

For a while, the ruse worked, says Khouri.  But the regime cottoned on and in 2013, she was detained for four months. "We were only allowed out to the toilet once every 24 hours, at 3 am in the morning." This was because, explains Khouri, they were torturing people the rest of the time "between our space and the bathroom." Sometimes, when the women got to the bathroom, there would be dead bodies lying there. "They didn’t care," says Khouri about the regime. "They wanted us to see what they were doing."

Sometimes, Khouri knew the people or recognized the voices of those being tortured. Once, in her cell, she heard the voice of a child. "He was just 13," she remembers. "I knew his mother and when he said he was 13 years old, immediately my son came to my mind." The boy, she says, was being forced to stand on a chair with a rope around his neck. They were threatening him that if he didn't admit to killing someone, they would first hang his mother and then him. "The boy was pleading with them not to kill his mother," Khouri remembers sadly. "He said, kill me, but please don't kill my mother." A group of displaced Syrians sit in an underground shelter in the Taltouna village, 17kilometers northwest of the city of Idlib, Syria, | Photo: EPA/Yahya NemahOn hearing this, Khouri begged the guards to let her talk to the boy, telling them she would get the information they wanted. "It was very hard for me to hear that," she said. "I wanted to do this just to hug him and tell him 'don’t worry about your mother.' This is a small part of the horrible things the regime did," says Khouri.

She was eventually allowed a few minutes with him, and she tried to tell him that she would get a message to his mother and that she would be safe. But the attempt doesn't have a particularly happy ending. "Since then the boy has not been found," says Khouri baldly, without speculating about what might have happened. The subject is quietly closed.

Despite her experiences, on being released, Khouri was determined to stay in Syria and keep fighting for the country she wanted it to become. "Assad must go," she says determinedly. "It is time." But after frequent raids on their home, and periods in hiding, in 2016 Khouri was forced to use a smuggler and begin an 18 hour "dangerous" journey to get her over the border to Lebanon.

Defying expectations

You can hear Khouri smiling slightly down the telephone when asked if she thinks she defies people's expectations of what a refugee 'should' be. "Yes, yes," she says, eagerly recounting a story about being on a panel discussion with the mayor of London soon after she arrived in the UK. Khouri had also catered the event at which she was giving a speech. When the food arrived and it was made clear that she was the cook behind it, the mayor of London turned to her surprised and asked: "Did you make this food too?" Khouri laughed and answered him simply: "Yes, I can talk AND I can cook!"

Khouri's capable strength and leadership skills shine through. "I am a leader," she agrees. "I am good at communicating and I can lead a team of people."Majeda Khouri standing outside Amnesty International offices at an event she catered for them | Source: Syrian Sunflower Facebook page
Despite hoping to return to Syria one day, Khouri has filled her life in London. She has been busy helping other Syrian refugee women, who come from poorer backgrounds, use their own cooking skills to earn a living in London. As well as her catering business, she works as an online researcher for the Open University, contacting people in the camps in Lebanon and Jordan. 

Family reunification

Once she had refugee status, Khouri's sons were able to join her in the UK through the family reunification program. They are about to start studying at university but do not want to hear about her activism. "When I am talking to you here on the phone, they go in another room," she says. "It was difficult for them. When I was detained they didn't know where I was. They knew that the regime killed people. I can understand, it was very hard for them, they don't want to hear about politics. They refuse to talk about it or get involved," she says quietly.

Nevertheless, Khouri remains undeterred. "I believe I have a responsibility as a human rights activist. It is on the same level of importance as my family," she says. "That's why I have to do as much as I can. […] That's why I have this passion and this power inside to clarify things for people."

Looking to the future

"In 2011 when we started our revolution we said, yes, we have a dream and it will come true. Until now, we haven't achieved it but we will, I hope we can. 60% of Syrians were living in poverty. I had a good life, my children went to a good school but I could see things were not fair. People didn't have opportunities and the regime was taking everything into their own pockets." A migrant man and his son walk near the Greek border at the Pazarkule crossing in Edirne, Turkey, 9 March 2020. Many of the migrants who gathered at the border are from Syria | Photo: EPA/TOLGA BOZOGLUThe regime wants us to leave, says Khouri. "Now there are 10 million people living outside Syria. ...  But I will keep fighting until we have the country we dreamed of. What we need is the first step of change. If Assad goes, people will see there is the possibility of change."

 

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