• How chefs are helping give refugees opportunities to build new lives in Australia. (The Bread and Butter Project)Source: The Bread and Butter Project
These trailblazing chefs are connecting refugees with jobs in the kitchen and beyond.
Lee Tran Lam

17 Jun 2019 - 2:10 PM  UPDATED 17 Jun 2019 - 3:36 PM

Somer Sivrioglu remembers the first time he met a Syrian refugee. 

The chef behind Sydney's Efendy and Anason restaurants was in Turkey when the Syrian war reached its coastline and images of three-year-old refugee Alan Kurdi’s death near the Turkish town of Kos caused international shock and heartbreak.

The hashtag #KiyiyaVuranInsanlik (humanity washed ashore) began trending after pictures of the young boy, who'd drowned after fleeing the Syrian war with his family, showed the unspeakable human cost of this ongoing conflict. 

It was not long after the tragic 2015 incident that Sivrioglu found himself in the same part of Turkey where he met a Syrian refugee around his age.

"He had three bakeries in Aleppo, Syria. He had two kids, he lost his wife in the war," says Sivrioglu, who's also a Master Chef judge in Turkey.

As they communicated in broken English and Turkish, he says he realised that "he was like me, in a different country". And he wondered how he could find work for Syrian refugees in Australia, where there's demand for chefs with Middle Eastern knowledge and cooking skills.

"He was like me, in a different country".

"Aleppo as a culinary destination is gone," he says. "The only people who can keep up with that tradition and then train the young people are the people who experienced that tradition."

But he believes giving refugees work in Australia's hospitality industry helps keep these cuisines alive.

He's given refugees production duties at Efendy in the inner west suburb of Balmain, and at Anason at Barangaroo in the centre of Sydney, one employee even set a record-breaking pace stocking the simit (Turkish bagel) stand.

Anason produces over 2,000 versions of the sesame-crusted pastry a week and this refugee "was faster than any of my trained bakers", says Sivrioglu.

"He does it faster by hand than you can do it by a machine and he does them perfectly. So what if he doesn't speak perfect English."

Simit with haydari (Turkish sesame bread with yoghurt dip)

While many restaurants in Australia accept chefs from Europe, Sivrioglu believes we should extend that empathy to Syrian refugees. "The real language we need to think about in the kitchen is the cooking skills and the cooking."

"The only people who can keep up with that tradition and then train the young people are the people who experienced that tradition."

While he's making a personal effort to help Syrian refugees, he thinks Australia should be doing more to support them. Turkey has 3.5 million refugees; Lebanon has as many as 1.5 million, even though its population is only 6 million. Australia has only accepted thousands. "I was shocked by those numbers," he says. "I definitely don't think we've done our job."

He credits Sharon Salloum, who runs the Syrian restaurant Almond Bar in Sydney's Darlinghurst, for helping him connect with refugees.

"Sharon has been doing an amazing job: going to refugee camps, training them up, cooking with them, getting them into the workplace. She's the one who should be celebrated."

Salloum also credits the work of Kamal Mouzawak for inspiring her. He'd invite Syrian women from Lebanon's refugee camps to showcase their regional dishes at his Tawlet restaurant in Beirut. Soon, they were running the kitchen. Some later opened their own businesses and the concept even started gaining momentum internationally. And Salloum wanted to do something similar here.

She contacted Settlement Services International, an organisation that aids refugees and asylum seekers, and things took off. "I was getting messages and emails with people from all over NSW, from different organisations, church groups even wanting to help out if they could," she says. "It was incredible."

While meeting refugees from Iran, Iraq and Syria, she's helped get people to work in restaurant kitchens and beyond. One refugee became a delivery driver while another landed a dental assistant role. "I even helped someone … get work as a mechanic."

For Salloum, it's personal. Her aunt found refuge in Germany after her husband was kidnapped by Syrian rebels – and luckily, was later freed. Another of her Syrian relatives has settled in Australia, too. 

While she has been connecting refugees with work for several years now, they haven't opened up any restaurants yet.

"Most Syrian refugees have come with family and are basically doing their best and taking on any possible work to keep going. Generally, this can be at the expense of what they would much rather be doing," she says. "However, I'm hoping I can help my mechanic friend, who has now taken on work as a waiter in a function centre to open a removals business with other newly arrived refugees … It's not a restaurant, but it's something!"

A baker and his 13-year-old son preserve their Syrian culture through baking bread at a refugee camp
Adam Liaw's visit to Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan shows that connecting to people through their food helps better understand the realities of the Syrian conflict.

Not long ago, Kate Spina was working as a pastry chef at acclaimed Sydney restaurants spinning fairy floss, coating deep-fried ice cream balls and candying individual leaves of parsley. Her time at award-winning places such as Mr Wong and Café Paci is a big contrast to her current role as a volunteer at Four Brave Women, a Sydney enterprise that helps refugees operate pop-up restaurants at The Trading Circle in Sydney's Summer Hill.

"I had this romantic notion that I would pop in for an hour or two and chat recipes," she says. "The first week we opened, I think I did over 30 volunteer hours."

Four Brave Women has featured many refugee-run eateries since its launch last April, and Spina has helped participants connect with suppliers, scale their recipes, source obscure ingredients, and learn occupational, health and safety procedures. 

"Surprisingly, my biggest task is often convincing refugee groups that people want to eat their food," she says. "All the food I have tasted through Four Brave Women has been amazing, but the idea that Australians would pay for it has been hard to comprehend for some participants."

One group only made one hundred portions for their first dinner service.

"I had to convince them that they would need four to five times that amount. So instilling confidence is a big part of it."

And although Spina has been cooking for 20 years, she's been amazed by what she's learnt from working alongside refugees at Four Brave Women. Standout experiences include: "the mind-blowing Persian eggplant dish kashk, how good spiced Ethiopian lentils are for breakfast, how nuanced Georgian cuisine is, the flavour bombs that are oreshki biscuits. And I love the stories behind the dishes – how they were served back home, why they chose them."

Get ready to try Georgian food at refugee-run restaurant Four Brave Women
Don't know what a Georgian supra looks like? Get ready for an Eastern European feast like none you've ever seen.

Spina says it helps refugees feel accepted by the community.

"Food is such a personal thing. You can't help but feel that when someone likes your food, they like you."

At Four Brave Women, she's seen refugees develop from shy and apprehensive cooks to confidently feeding hundreds of people at a time, like at Kylie Kwong's recent Night Market at Carriageworks.

"It reminds me of our common humanity. I can't fully know or comprehend of the suffering that compels someone to leave their home, but I can bond with them over their food. Helping them to make a living out of their food, to be proud of their food and to connect with others through their recipes is incredibly rewarding."

Bourke Street Bakery may be famous for its ginger brûlée tarts and pork and fennel sausage rolls, but since 2013, it's been quietly training refugees through its social enterprise: The Bread & Butter Project.

Not only does this project teach refugees to bake, it also helps them to find work. Nearly 30 participants have graduated from its TAFE-accredited program and all now have jobs. The bread they make is supplied to two hundred cafes, restaurants, corporate businesses and supermarkets across Australia.

David McGuinness, the co-founder of Bourke Street Bakery, says it's important to assist refugees.

"I am so lucky to have been born in Australia in the 20th century," he says. "When you can offer assistance simply by using your trade, it is a very easy decision to make."

The refugees are trained by production coordinator Christian Ortland. Participants have included a young woman who fled Afghanistan with her son. "She witnessed things happening to her family that were horrible," says Ortland. "Unfortunately a lot of her family didn’t make it out".

Adam Liaw's emotional visit to 'the city of children'
Zaatari Refugee Camp is home to 80,000 Syrians – over half of them children – and is now Jordan’s fourth biggest city. TV chef, UNICEF Australia ambassador and father-of-two Adam Liaw tells SBS News what he witnessed there.

Another is a jeweller from Syria who was reminded of his mother's sweets when he tried The Bread & Butter Project's brioche.

Ortland also says it included a woman who was a social worker, a man who was a physician and a civil engineer – all who have commenced different careers in Australia because their accreditation is not recognised.

But there's a lot of potential that comes from working in a kitchen – and that's something that Sivrioglu from Efendy sees.

"What I love about our work is that it's one of the truly democratic places." 

"What I love about our work is that it's one of the truly democratic places," he says. "The majority of chefs couldn't care less about your sexual orientation, your race, your background."

Like Salloum, Spina and The Bread & Butter Project's team, he's helping train the next generation of refugee chefs as they try to make a new home here – and they're keen to work hard.

"They're not going to call in sick because they had too much to drink the night before or they had a big party," he says. "They're people who need the job. They're people who add spice to the whole Australian culinary scene."