People are happy to wait in line to get a taste of 'Mezze' | Photo: Sertan Sanderson
People are happy to wait in line to get a taste of 'Mezze' | Photo: Sertan Sanderson

Refugees in Portugal's capital are winning over locals with their cooking - one bite at a time. A local initiative is enabling them to share their knowledge about Middle Eastern cuisine and to make a living in their new homes.

You would expect that dining out in Lisbon might involve a lot of fish and seafood prepared with peri peri sauce, stewy rice dishes and grilled veggies, all followed up by some rich port wine and indulgent pastries. But a group of refugees are shaking up the city's culinary scene and taking the Portuguese capital by storm.

Located slightly north of the city center, the "Mezze" restaurant is introducing Portuegese audiences to tasty dishes from the Middle East. From Baba Ghanoush to Fatoush salad to the nuttiest hummus outside Syria, "Mezze" is a foodie's paradise, featuring mostly vegetarian dishes full of flavor, texture and spice.

Lisboetas welcome the colorful flavors from the Middle East

The meals are served in small dishes which are intended to be shared - mezze-style. Restaurantgoers learn about foreign spices like za'atar, consume freshly made tamarind juice and mint lemonade and enjoy a little bit of the Middle East in the heart of Lisbon. And business is booming: with queues outside often resulting in half-hour waits, the small restaurant is having to expand and is currently renovating the space next door to accommodate more guests.

Escaping Syria

But all this success actually grew out of great adversity: the founder of "Mezze" has had to flee the civil war in Syria with her family. Faten stuck out the first five years since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in 2011, hoping for things to calm down. "Everything was getting very bad. There was no safety. The prices were also becoming impossible," she recounts.

She finally decided to leave the country with her two daughters in 2016, heading for Turkey and then to Greece. The 36-year-old widow had no plan or idea where she would eventually end up but coming from Syria's Kurdish minority, she did not want to settle in Turkey where animosities between Kurds and Turks continue to flare up frequently. When they reached Greece, Faten and her family spent almost a year there before their journey continued.

The restaurant is partcularly busy on weekends

Through the EU's resettlement program, she and her family ended up in Portugal - where Faten knew nobody and had to start a new life from scratch. "I didn't know a soul," she says.

She started learning Portuguese and enrolled in a hospitality course, made new friends and honed her skills in the kitchen. Her daughters meanwhile started school. Once everyone was settled, the family - like many other refugees from the Middle East - would have to figure out how to support themselves.

New beginnings

Faten had never worked in a restaurant kitchen before. She had originally wanted to become a teacher but got married and had children when she had just started university. Her children, she says, are the most important thing in her life - especially since she lost her husband in 2004. Securing their future was her biggest aim.

Out of their dire situation, the opportunity arose to be part of a catering cooperative, where refugees would showcase their dishes from their home countries in the Middle East during private dinners. The idea became a massive success, helping Faten and several other refugee families in the Lisbon area to start making living.

The founders behind the initiative knew they were onto something so they decided to raise money through a crowdfunding campaign to open a permanent restaurant for refugee families like Faten's to work in.

Solidarity in the kitchen

Baking thin doughy bread is one of the most important aspects of kitchen work at Mezze

And thus "Mezze" opened in May 2017, providing employment to a total of 15 refugees - including Faten - from the beginning. With the kitchen being located in one corner or the restaurant itself, eating at "Mezze" is an immersive experience in Middle Eastern culture and feels almost like taking part as a guest in a large family gathering.

The idea of preparing food and serving locals curious about Syrian cooking isn't, however, just a means of making a living for the migrants working at the restaurant; it's also a therapeutic way for them to process the many traumatic experiences they all had during their escape and journey to Europe while fleeing the war in Syria.

"What we bring to the table aren't just delicious dishes prepared by hands carrying many stories. We also bring inclusion, solidarity and tolerance," Fatem explains.

Home away from home

One year later, the restaurant is already having to expand to the space located next door and will take up almost twice as much space as it does now at its location at the "Mercado de Arroios" - a lively neighborhood market in a multicultural part of the city featuring fruit stands, butchers, cheese vendors and a number of restaurant.

However, judging by the line forming outside, "Mezze" looks by far like it's the most sought-after eatery in the neighborhood. Ordinarily, one might expect envious glances from the neighbors, but Lisboetas appear to have embraced "Mezze" in their midst as a hands-on way to help refugees.

The refugee-run restaurant is keen to keep helping new refugees still arriving, such as a group of Yazidi Syrians resettled in Portugal recently. With many migrants having had to stop their jobs and careers back home, "Mezze" also offers a way for new arrivals to get training in hospitality and learn new skills in their new homes.

"This is a project created to provide training and employment to Middle Eastern refugees, making the most of everything they have to offer," Faten explains. She and her colleagues all display a certain sense of pride - not just in their work but also in their culture and heritage, 5,000 kilometers away from Syria.

Dreams across the water

Despite celebrating such huge success in their new home country, the refugees working at "Mezze" all miss their homes and families in Syria:

"I was very happy. Thanks to God, I had everything I wanted (in Syria). (Now) I miss my family, my daughter, very much," Fatem says, referring to her eldest daughter who still lives in Damascus. There's a great sense of resilience and strength in her voice when she speaks about the past - as well as hope for the future:

"The thing I like most here is the sea," Faten says about Lisbon, where the cold waters of the Atlantic Ocean can be seen from the tops of the famous seven hills of the city.

There's a faint but steady sense of hope in Faten's voice implying that one day she might be able to cross the seas again to reunite with her family back in Syria. But much like preparing and eating mezze, that hope will only come to fruition taking small bites and applying a lot of patience.


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