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Catering to a Diaspora: Syrians Bring Flavor of Home to Sweden

Malmö, Sweden -- "Food may be able to bring us together," said Yousef Awad. "We have different opinions, but we can agree on a Syrian dish."

Awad is the manager of Tanoor, a recently opened Syrian restaurant in Malmö. The 38-year-old father brings with him a history of hospitality, and loss.

More than 40 percent of Malmö's population have a foreign background, and the mixed identities are reflected in the city's multicultural cuisine. Kurdish, Lebanese, Iranian, Turkish, Iraqi, Balkan—and most recently, Syrian. More than 100,000 Syrians have sought asylum in Sweden, and many choose to stay in Malmö, finding comfort in its large Arab diaspora.

Awad was a restaurant manager in Syria too, running an upscale eatery in Damascus. In September 2012, his wife and young daughter were killed in an explosion in Jaramana, a suburb on the outskirts of the capital. Awad left for Jordan soon after.

"I still had a son, and I needed to protect him," said Awad. "I could no longer stay there."

Photograph by Hiba Dlewati

Awad had a sister in Malmö and decided to move here with his son in 2014. After months of studying Swedish and waiting for his residency, he returned to work.

Owned by a member of the older Syrian diaspora, Tanoor blends in with its red brick surroundings on the outside. One step in, however, and all senses are transported somewhere else. The sound of Syrian folk music mingles with the nervous conversations on pending asylum requests, and laughs at integration jokes. The scent of freshly baked flatbread (Tanoor in Arabic) is omnipresent, and the walls are decorated with Levantine tapestries and ivy. The menu features mezzes, grilled meats, and daily dishes.

"We miss this," said Awad. "Our cuisine, our culture, as Syrians we all have nostalgia for this."

Taboor's clientele is not limited to the Syrian diaspora in Malmö, but includes other diasporas and locals. Photograph by Hiba Dlewati

Not all the dishes can be made in the restaurant, however. Wanting to maintain the authenticity of home cooking, Tanoor's owner works with Syrian women in Sweden for certain popular, yet difficult-to-cook recipes.

Huda and her friends wanted to see Malmö. Having claimed asylum in the small Swedish coastal town of Simrishamn, the women were curious to see the cosmopolitan city just 90 minutes away. After a few hours of walking in town, they decided to sit down for some food. Huda stopped a man walking by to ask a local for restaurant recommendations.

"He pointed us in the direction of a few Middle Eastern restaurants, then laughed," said Huda. "He said next time you shall eat at my restaurant."

Realizing Huda and her friends were Syrian, the owner of a not-yet-open Tanoor asked them if they knew any Syrian women who had catering experience.

"I gave him my number and forgot about it," Huda said.

Photograph by Hiba Dlewati

Since Tanoor's opening, Huda is the restaurant's main caterer for kibbeh, a Levantine meat- and cracked wheat-based dish, as well as rolled grape leaves. She works at home in Simrishamn, where she, her husband, and three sons claimed asylum almost two years ago. A couple of times a week, she takes the train to Malmö to deliver her specialty dishes.

Huda and her family left Syria in late 2012 when a shell fell into their neighbor's apartment. They first moved to Libya, where she realized she could turn her passion for cooking into a means for supporting herself.

"My Libyan friends were so curious about our food, and I once made a few dishes for a wedding. All of a sudden I had 'clients,'" said Huda, laughing as she prepared the kitchen table for work.

But life in Libya was steadily getting more difficult, and violent. The electricity cuts and indiscriminate shelling in Benghazi began to mirror the home they'd left behind in Syria, and by summer 2014, Huda was ready to listen to her sons.

"I couldn't accept the idea of people trying to cross the sea," said Huda, smoothing out a grape leaf. "But my daughters are scattered in different countries, and I couldn't be separated from my sons too."

The family boarded a large boat to cross the Mediterranean, with 500 others, in hopes of reaching Italy. The supposedly six-hour trip stretched on for twenty more, after the boat's motor stopped working. They were eventually saved by an Italian rescue ship, where they stayed on deck for three days.

"You see these grape leaves here? That's how close together we were stuck," said Huda. "You could not move without tripping over another body."

Photograph by Hiba Dlewati

From Italy, Huda's family took trains all the way to Sweden, deciding to try their own luck and not rely on another smuggler. The final train they took from Denmark into Sweden is now shut to would-be asylum seekers, after Sweden enforced border checks on all its modes of transport six months ago.

Huda describes the camp her family lived in for nine months while kneading cracked wheat (bulgur) into small circles.

"Syrian food has more value to me now, after spending nine months eating camp food, western food," said Huda, scooping ground meat, onions, and pomegranates into the bulgur patties. "It wasn't allowed, but I bought a small stove and started cooking in our camp room."

Photograph by Hiba Dlewati

I asked Huda how she first learned how to cook, but was interrupted by her husband.

"I taught her," he said, poking his head into the kitchen and laughing.

Huda shook her head, placing a perfectly rolled kibbeh onto a tray.

"That's not possible," she said, then leaned in over the tray, raising an immaculately defined eyebrow. "He's originally Turkish."

Cooking has been a hobby of mine since I was a teenager. My family's kitchen was small, but I'd love to hang out in there, surprise my mother with the dishes I could cook on my own, Huda said. Photograph by Hiba Dlewati

Huda's family is starting to find their way in Sweden. They have received their residency cards, almost 20 months since arriving here. Huda, her husband, and eldest son, Samir, take language courses, and they are looking for employment. Her two younger sons are already in school and speaking fluent Swedish, and they are getting attention as talented football players in the local sports club.

Satisfied with the number of kibbeh and grape leaves she'd rolled for the evening, Huda walks over to the stove and starts to boil some coffee and cardamom. She comments on the large number of Syrians now in Sweden, and how it's more difficult to cook dishes from home here.

"It takes time to find the materials, and time to make, and not everyone has that time," she said, and then smiles to herself. "And not everyone can make it right!"

Photograph by Hiba Dlewati

Hiba Dlewati is a Syrian American journalist and writer moving throughout Jordan, Turkey and Sweden to document and narrate the stories of the Syrian diaspora. Twitter: @Hiba_Dlewati

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