11/29/2016 06:37 EST | Updated 11/29/2016 06:37 EST

The Humanizing Power Of Baking (And Breaking) Bread

Jacobs Stock Photography via Getty Images

Two weeks ago I was invited to a very special brunch. The phrase "special brunch" being kind of a tautology... I mean, what warm-blooded North American doesn't love brunch, right? But, this one was was extra-special. I was attending a test sitting for the first Syrian pop-up brunch in Toronto.. possibly even the world.


(photo credit: Lisa Kates)

Since spring of 2016, I've been documenting the Newcomer Kitchen project -- a food-based social enterprise in Toronto that is creating opportunities for employment and cultural exchange by having Syrian refugee women prepare and sell home-cooked meals.

The project has super busy since its inception in April 2016 and, aside from their weekly Thursday meals, have catered events such as Luminato, CBC 's "Cross Country Checkup," and a VIP Iftar dinner with Toronto Mayor John Tory, and continues to evolve.

"What about a Syrian brunch?" visionary Newcomer Kitchen co-founder Len Senator found himself dreaming. If anyone knows how to run a brunch, it's Len. His well-touted food establishment The Depanneur where "interesting food things happen" (referred to as "The Dep" by fans), has been hosting top Toronto brunches - Zagat-rated ones - for years.

But is there such a thing as a Syrian brunch? Chatting with Newcomer Kitchen coordinators, the lovely couple Rahaf Al Akbani & Esmaeel Abofakher, who themselves arrived in Canada as refugees this year, I learn that "brunch" does not exist in Syria. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are all very separate -- and very serious -- experiences. And by serious, I don't mean stoic or solemn... For typical Syrians, time and human companionship are as important ingredients as those in the amazing food...

And this social aspect is where our not-quite-breakfast, not- quite-lunch beloved brunch overlaps with Syrian dining. Outside of Christmas and Thanksgiving, it's arguably one of the most social and leisurely eating indulgences in North America.

The implications of eating together go beyond a good eggs benny.

When I described the project to a colleague, he responded saying it's very hard to hate someone with whom you share a meal. It's true. Eating together is very humanizing and, breaking bread has the potential to break down boundaries.


(photo credit: Lisa Kates)

This unifying potential of food is the premise behind other social enterprises intent on bridging the social and economic divides, while making their community more delicious.

In Toronto,The Afghan Women's Catering Group has been empowering immigrant women through their home-cooking abilities for almost 10 years. Karam Kitchen in Hamilton, Ontario is a coalition of women introducing Syrian culture and food through a catering operation that employs refugees.

Outside of Canada, there's Conflict Kitchen in Pittsburgh, a concept that uses food to create a dialogue about countries the United States is in conflict with, such as Iran, Afghanistan, North Korea, and currently featuring the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. In Paris, The Refugee Food Festival uses food as a unifying force through the creation of special menus by pairing chefs from fine Parisian restaurants with refugee chefs from around the world.

Back in Toronto, the Newcomer Kitchen project consistency demonstrates the potential for breaking down boundaries through baking (and breaking) bread. From the volunteers, to the patrons, and even amongst the Syrian women involved.

The original idea to provide respite from the challenges of cooking in the hotels they were temporarily housed in brought women from all over Syria -- women who did not know one another, from different backgrounds with differing viewpoints -- into one kitchen. By all accounts, that first exchange was an almost magical event.

So the shared communal dinner continued once a week, and a social enterprise emerged. A portion of the food is prepared and sold to Torontonians excited by the arrival of delicious Syrian cuisine into the City's diverse food landscape (the meals sell out every week).

Newcomer Kitchen co-founder Cara Benjamin Pace cites studies about how empowering women like this positively impacts the newcomer community. Typically newcomer women would be relegated to cooking in the home and domestic work, so often it would take longer to learn language and culture of their new home.

The women in Newcomer Kitchen have the opposite experience. Besides earning more than minimum wage for cooking the meals, they have been fast-tracked into Toronto culture -- earning their food handlers certificate (via translation), working in the commercial restaurant business, befriending Toronto volunteers, experiencing Canadian work ethic, and navigating Greater Toronto Area transportation systems.

And suddenly there's a slice of Syria right here in Toronto -- something precious and invaluable not only for the refugee families involved, but for the Canadians (diners and volunteers) who have enjoyed a taste.

While we focus on (and maybe obsess over) the nutrients, vitamins or calories in our food, food social enterprises like Newcomer Kitchen are using food's potential to open minds, build healthy communities, and open minds. "You are what you eat" takes on new meaning if we consider not only what is in our dinner, but how and with whom we are dining.

Cesar Chavez said "the people who give you their food give you their heart." I think I'll have some of that on the side with my Syrian brunch.

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