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  • Writer's pictureOlive Tree

Ibtisam's Journey from Syria to Cincinnati

Updated: Oct 5

When shrapnel landed on her balcony one cold Syrian afternoon in 2013, just narrowly missing her three-year-old son, Ibtisam knew it was finally time to leave her hometown Idlib. After enduring months of fighting, bodies in the streets, no electricity, scarce food, and a kidnap epidemic, Ibtisam and her six children were crammed on an overcrowded bus that set out on a nail-biting, bone-jarring 24-hour journey through numerous checkpoints, to join her husband in Beirut (Lebanon) where he had found work. Leaving meant everything else stayed behind in Syria, from her favorite gold-rimmed teacups and sepia-toned family portraits to her favorite cooking pots given to her by her aunt on her wedding day. “I felt like I lost myself.” Before fleeing Idlib, Ibtisam had not even been out of her own city, much less the country.

In the face of the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II, Kamal Mouzawak, a well-known Lebanese restaurateur, helped Ibtisam and scores of other Syrian refugee women gracefully navigate their new lives with dignity. In 2012, he created Atayab Zaman, “The Delicious Past,” a culinary training program for female Syrian refugees where they cook to remember, just as much as they cook to survive. Before the war in Syria, cooking was the proud pinnacle of Ibtisam’s day — a trip to the market as crucial and pivotal as sunrise and sunset. “I’ve always been told I’m a great cook, I just didn’t think I’d be doing it for a living.” Through this program, Ibtisam worked a shift at a small kitchenette with a dozen tables where she prepared food for the United Nations refugee agency’s staff. With the help of the agency, she registered her family for asylum and relocation to America due to the unrelenting war in Syria. In May 2016, she received news that her application had gone through to the next level and that they would be relocating to Cincinnati, Ohio.

Ever since coming to the United States, Ibtisam was determined to have her own restaurant, to realize her own American Dream. It wasn’t until she started working with a local nonprofit RefugeeConnect who connected her to the FreshLo program. The FreshLo Chef Fellowship grew out of the local community’s desire for access to affordable, healthy, culturally-diverse food options. This program creates opportunities for those with barriers to starting a food business and gives them access to their dream through education, connections, and support. The program is unique in the region, providing a hand up and a push forward for those struggling to take the first step towards turning their idea into an actual, sustainable food business. In addition to their delicious food, each of the chef fellows has a unique story to share.

Ibtisam had the know-how and passion, but was held back due to language and a lack of connections and knowledge of how to navigate a new system of regulations and business. The Fellowship gave her an understanding of the local food system, introduced her to mentors and opportunities, assisted her in gaining employment in a supportive food business environment, and gave her direct support to start her own company, Olive Tree Catering. The program gave her the guidance and knowledge to achieve her dream of providing for her family while becoming a thriving member of her new community. Today, Olive Tree Catering is proudly serving food at Findlay Market every weekend during market season; and offering catering year round from Findlay Kitchen.

For Syrians, like Ibtisam, to cook is to be at home, to commune over a meal, and seal a bond of friendship. While most people will associate Syria with the death and destruction that is in the news, Syrians are so much more than this war, just like Ibtisam and her family. Food tells Syria’s history better than the volumes that chronicle rulers and wars. Syria’s land was part of the Fertile Crescent, where agriculture was born. It was fought over by the ancient Sumerians, Egyptians and Babylonians. It was ruled by Persians, Byzantines and Ottomans — and we can taste their influence.

Aleppo, once Syria’s largest city and now the site of some of the war’s fiercest fighting, is situated along what used to be the Silk Road. Merchants and traders from as far away as China carried with them recipes and spices, which made their way into Aleppo’s cuisine in dishes like meatballs swimming in sour-cherry sauce (lahmeh bi karaz) and a stew of quince and ground lamb stuffed into shells of bulgur (kibbeh saffarjaliyya). These stories, told through food, offer a far more intimate insight into Syria and its people than any news reports. Stories that Ibtisam will tell in recipes and the way she cooks.

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