Istanbul gastro project promotes livelihoods of refugees

Istanbul gastro project promotes livelihoods of refugees

Zeynep Bilgehan – ISTANBUL

The Livelihoods Innovation through Food Entrepreneurship (LIFE) project, launched in 2017, has been developing sustainable livelihoods in the food sector for refugees in Turkey.

Although the two-year long project’s focus is on enhancing livelihoods among refugees, the program is also open to Turkish citizens, but provided that their numbers do not exceed the number of refugee beneficiaries.

The inclusion of both refugee and Turkish communities in the project has been promoting social cohesion through gastrodiplomacy. Participants in the program get to know each other—including their different traditions and cultures—along the way. The beneficiary refugees of the project come from a variety of countries, such as Jordan, Yemen, Egypt, Iraq and Syria.

“This project, by combining Turkish and Arab cultures, teaches how to work in the food sector,” Rama Alkalas (33) from Syria, one of the coordinators of the project, told daily Hürriyet.

The participants of the program enter a four-month incubation period in Istanbul, during which they receive specialized instruction in Turkish or Arabic, as well as workshops and training with international chefs to build and grow their businesses. As part of their incubation, the participants team up to host food experiences and dining events as an opportunity to get direct feedback, network and build community.

Among the participants included in the incubation program, the ones who are most promising are rewarded with financial support after the “Business Plan Competition” at the end of each cadre, and they get the chance to realize their business ideas.

In the food enterprise center, the participants try various kinds of food recipes in an attempt to understand if their food will be appealing to their potential customers, Alkalas said. “Foreigners [refugees] especially want to have Turkish participants try their recipes. Because their customers [after setting up their businesses] will be also Turks. First, the Yemeni dish zubrian was cooked [at the site],” she said.

One of the participants of the program is Fatima Ahmed from civil-war struck Yemen.

“I was providing a ‘catering’ service for various activities in Yemen [prior to the war]. In 2017, I sold all of my assets and without knowing any Turkish, I moved to Turkey. I had become tired of doing nothing in a foreign country all alone. The day the trainings of ‘Life’ project started was my birthday, and now a new life has begun for me. I got to know a new culture and people,” said Ahmed, who is now making a livelihood of selling her home-made cakes to a coffee shop in Istanbul’s Aksaray neighborhood in Fatih district.

Istanbul is a big market, and initially we were holding back, but now we have reached our dreams. There are actually many Yemeni entrepreneurs here and they have money. But, since they do not know about the market, the shops they open are immediately shut down. We are learning how the business runs slowly,” she said.

Another participant of the program is Muhammed Bakkar from Syria. He graduated at the top of his class from the University of Damascus in Syria. Having worked for many years for the Syrian government, he and his family left their homeland following the war.

In Turkey, he found a new job—manufacturing cheese. He opened a workshop in Istanbul’s Esenyurt district three years ago and started to sell various kinds of cheese to Syrian-owned shops in the city which he manufactured himself. But, the idea of enlarging his business made him join the Life program.

“For now, the target body [of the project] is Syrians. I used to think I would have come to Istanbul only as a tourist. My name is on the ‘black list’ in Syria, so I cannot go back there. Anyway, we do not believe the [Syrian government] calls of ‘come back to the country.’ Here at least, we can sense the smell of Syria,” Bakkar said.

The LIFE project is a collaborative effort of its consortium members, which include the Center for International Private Enterprise, International Development Management (IDEMA), Union Kitchen, the Stimson Center and the William Davidson Institute at the University of Michigan.