Make Food Not War: A Growing Network of Businesses is Empowering Women and Refugees in Lebanon

A network of inns, restaurants and farm markets in Lebanon has become so much more—keeping family recipes alive, healing post-war wounds and building a thriving food truck business for refugees.

4 women

Photo: The Recipe Hunters

Driven by an ethos of economically empowering women and small farmers while uniting the country through nourishment, Lebanese food and travel writer Kamal Mouzawak defines his growing organization, Souk El Tayeb, by its slogan, "Make food, not war."

The idea for Souk El Tayeb came not from an "aha" moment, but rather as an organic extension of a series of projects. Not long after Lebanon's bitter civil war ended in 1990, Mouzawak became involved with a cultural center in a bullet-riddled house in Beirut. "The idea was to bring people divided by the war together," he said. "People who had been enemies the day before flocked to this house for art and culture activities-and this amazed me. It was a great teaching in my life. I understood the importance of having a common ground."

Keeping Traditional Lebanese Recipes Alive

Keeping Traditional Lebanese Recipes Alive
Photo: The Recipe Hunters.

With help and vision from business partner Christine Codsi, what started as a single farmers' market evolved into a string of four guesthouses (called beits) and six restaurants (called tawlets) across Lebanon.

To the casual observer, the laid-back self-service of the Tawlets belies the importance of the social experiment happening inside. Indeed, the restaurant is based on an unusual premise: Every day, a woman from a different village travels to the city to prepare dishes from her hometown, using market produce. These women hold the secrets to recipes at risk of extinction as the country's youngest generations lose touch with their stovetops. And Mouzawak feels compelled to preserve those recipes.

Get some of the recipes: Healthy Lebanese Recipes to Give You a Taste of the Middle East

Helping a Refugee Become a Food Truck Owner

Refugee Turned Food Truck Owner
Photo: The Recipe Hunters.

He's quick to point out, however, that he's not a vegetable vendor, restaurateur or hotelier: "I'm just creating an exchange. Everything we do is a human development project. It's about the people, not the product." That last sentiment may be best exemplified by the work Souk El Tayeb does in refugee camps. Mouzawak and his team, for example, raised money for women inside the Palestinian refugee camp Burj El Barajneh to fund what is now a thriving food-truck business launched by Palestinian Mariam Shaar, who grew up in a refugee camp in Lebanon.

Like many refugees, one of the challenges Shaar faced was finding a job. So in 2013, after getting funding from a nonprofit, along with guidance from Mouzawak, she started a catering company. Eventually she added her food truck, which brings Palestinian food to Beirut's Souk El Tayeb market. Shaar's growing business employs 25 to 30 women from the refugee camp.

Support Shaar's project: See the movie about her project or purchase the cookbook, Soufra: Recipes from a Refugee Food Truck. (Use the code "eatingwell" to get 30% off the cookbook.) Shaar's employees get half the profits from the book.

Breaking Barriers

kamal and maguy
Photo: The Recipe Hunters.

Women have benefited the most from Souk El Tayeb. Nearly 700, including Syrian and Palestinian refugees, Christians, Muslims, young and old, have been trained to work across the various businesses. He finds them, said Mouzawak, through referrals, word of mouth, friends, sisters, mothers.

Mouzawak dreams about taking Tawlet beyond Lebanon's borders-anywhere that women's traditional home-cooked cuisine could be showcased. "It's not about doing more myself. It's about getting more people involved," he said. "It's all about inclusion."

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