As the Syrian war escalated, Australian newcomer Sophie Bejok says one thing dominated the landscape. "Bombs: every time, everywhere."
Whenever she walked through her home town of Aleppo, the explosives struck with no logic and zero predictability. You never felt entirely safe.
"Even in my home," she says. "A bomb entered my home."
By that time, she had already fled to Lebanon – so she was far from the damage. But her family wasn't: her dad had just closed the door and was walking away from their house in Aleppo when the bomb crushed the building two minutes later.
"At that time, so many houses were destroyed, people didn't care about houses anymore."
"At that time, so many houses were destroyed, people didn't care about houses anymore," says Bejok. "They just cared about people. At least my family was fine." And luckily, they could stay with Sophie's grandmother while they rebuilt the house.
Before the war upended their lives, though, Sophie was a bioengineering student who loved living in Aleppo.
"It is one of the oldest cities in the world," she says. The ancient buildings and rich culture – and the life that buzzed through the town – gave her such pride.
Bejok had no plans to leave Aleppo. But when she was visiting relatives in Lebanon in 2015, her parents told her to stay there, because Syria had become so dangerous. Eighteen months later, her family joined her in Lebanon. From there, they applied to join Sophie's aunt in Australia – and after a nervous, year-long wait, they were successful. "It was the best thing that happened," says Bejok.
In early 2018, Bejok arrived in Sydney with her parents and younger brother. Australia didn't seem too dramatically different from Syria to her: "It's full of life, it's full of people from different backgrounds."
With her relatives, she took part in activities – swimming lessons organised by the Inner West Council, belly-dancing lessons at Lilyfield's Community Refugee Welcome Centre – that helped new arrivals socialise, gain skills and settle into the local community.
It was while belly-dancing at the centre that she learnt about the Settlement Services International's Innovation Fund.
As a newcomer to Australia, she applied on a whim. She noticed that the refugees who turned up to dance every week also spent money ordering food in. Why not create a club that encouraged them all to cook dishes from their cultural backgrounds – from Persian turmeric rice to dolmades – that they could enjoy together over lunch once the lessons finished every Friday? The idea became The Laziz Project, which launched in late February with help from the Innovation Fund. It's since received continued support from the Inner West Council.
The word 'Laziz' was inspired by the languages of the refugees, namely Persian or Arabic. "It's like a mutual word that comes from the two languages. It means delicious," she explains.
Expressing yourself through flavours – and bonding over food – is something that comes naturally to her.
"I love to cook many things," says Bejok. "But most of the time my mum cooks, because I live with her. You can't have two cooks at the same time!"
Between them, they'd bring kibbeh, tabouleh, kebabs and vine leaves. Sometimes they'd prepare fatteh with chickpeas or riz a jej (chicken and rice) and other times they'd serve a cheese and pistachio dessert called halawet el jibn.
The memory-triggering fragrance of fried onions – used to flavour lamb and rice dishes – would send Bejok back to after-school afternoons in Syria. And of course, Aleppo peppers reminded her of her home town. "Sometimes we ate it green," she says of the raw peppers. Sometimes they consumed big, sweet fruity ones, while the tiny ones would be incredibly hot – and something she avoided as a kid. "We don't eat it, because it's so spicy!"
After belly-dancing lessons and over serves of rice, kebabs and salad, Bejok got to know the members of The Laziz Project better. On these Friday afternoons, she was joined by close relatives (her mother, grandmother, aunt) as well as neighbours, friends and strangers – plus the platters of well-cooked food they had prepared. Sometimes they'd bring non-traditional dishes, too, like pizza.
"Every Friday, we were getting more and more people, because they were enjoying [everything] so much," she says.
Bejok trained The Laziz Project members in food safety (as she'd recently completed an accredited TAFE course). Over time, the participants gained confidence in cooking, socialising and practising their English as they passed around the kibbeh or spiced rice. They gained experience buying ingredients from markets, prepping food and cooking for large crowds. They even got to cook with Australia's top chefs at the sell-out #CookForSyria event at Sydney's Nomad in August.
While Bejok downplays their involvement, there's no doubt that their fattoush made an impression on a menu that also included Shannon Martinez's vegan shwarma, Palisa Anderson's Thai hummus, and Julie Niland's triple cream cheese slice. With help from Almond Bar's Sharon Salloum, The Laziz Project members sliced garlic, cut parsley, squeezed lemons and topped the Syrian salad with fried bread. In front of the diners that night, Bejok told the story of how the Syrian war escalated. "It started slowly, slowly – but then it got so terrible," she recalls.
The Cook For Syria, though, was a positive event – especially for the women of The Laziz Project.
"They dance, they cook, they eat. They love going there, because they need each other."
"It was a very nice opportunity for us to participate in that," Bejok says. It was especially significant to convey their food and culture to the sell-out crowd, "and for them to meet Syrian people, because it was a dinner about Syria".
The event raised more than $50,000 for UNICEF's Syrian Crisis Appeal.
So what's next for The Laziz Project? A recipe book of the participants' dishes and other projects showcasing the group's activities. And of course, their ongoing, appetite-filling meetings.
"They can't imagine their life now without their Friday activities," says Bejok about her mum, grandmother, aunt and other members of The Laziz Project.
"They dance, they cook, they eat," she adds. "They love going there because they need each other."